The idea of a World War II movie is nothing new. Every few years someone tries it again, with somewhat of a new twist, but ultimately results in a barrage of blood, gratuitous violence, and unnecessary monologues amidst a sea of gunfire; Christopher Nolan may not have invented the idea but he has certainly come the closest to perfecting the execution.
In 1940, German forces pushed into France, trapping British and French troops on the beaches of Dunkirk. Using every military vessel available the British troops were slowly and methodically evacuated from the beach while constantly being under attack from rival forces. Without focusing on one singular lead character, the film follows the efforts of British troops to both survive and fight back, from land, sea, and air. Under siege from German fighter pilots, soldiers on the beach can only hope that by laying flat on the ground the bombs and gunfire will miss them. Military ships of all sizes are sunk by torpedoes or by aerial attack; the hulls of the ship quickly fill with water and the soldiers who though they had finally been rescued have to, once again, fight to survive.
From the beginning of the film, Nolan establishes three separate timelines for each area of action, culminating on a singular event: land – 1 week out, sea – 1 day out, air – 1 hour out. The week-long “land” timeline focuses on 3 boys trying to get home by any means possible; whether it be disguising themselves as medics to get on board the hospital ship or waiting in a beached vessel for the tide to take it back out to sea, their plan is continuously thwarted and they’re left to wonder if they’ll ever see the coast of home again. The day-long “sea” timeline follows Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a civilian who, along with hundreds of others, has been called upon by the British military to sail to Dunkirk in order to assist in evacuation efforts, but he is quickly met with trouble when he comes across a stranded soldier (Cillian Murphy) with severe PTSD that literally rocks the boat. The hour-long battle of the “sky” timeline follows two British fighter pilots (Tom Hardy & Jack Lowden) as they wage war against enemy pilots and a dwindling fuel supply.
In my personal opinion, Rylance is the true heartbeat of this film, with his quietly wise demeanor carrying the emotional weight of the film, but there truly is no singular star in the film (sorry Harry Styles fans). Each character helps weave the overall story together but exist intentionally on their own, which allow us to connect to them without feeling like our heartstrings are being ripped from our chests. With a relatively limited script in terms of dialogue, Nolan allows the action instead of the words to progress the story forward, all while Hans Zimmer provides a light but powerful score to build tension with a combination of sound effects and music.
Given that it’s part of history, I think it’s safe to say it’s not a spoiler stating that at the end of this heroic mission, 330,000 French, British, Belgian and Dutch soldiers were safely evacuated but this film is more than a snippet from history; it’s truly a depiction of the human condition in the face of war, as Nolan strips away the gratuitous violence war films are usually full of. It shows how war makes a person question their humanity, reveals the intricacies of true “heroism”, and how far a person might go to get home.