Written by Beckett Van Stralen
Dunkirk was an experience, as most movies by Christopher Nolan wind up being. He tells a story we’ve heard before; Perhaps not about the Siege of Dunkirk itself, but the valiant efforts made by men and women in World War II to rise up against the German Invasion of Europe. What sets this film apart from other typical war films is it doesn’t follow a squad of soldiers who somehow manage to turn the tide of battle on their own. Dunkirk’s narrative simply unfolds in front of you as a visual spectacle. Employing this approach is where the film shines as a powerful and emotional piece of cinema, conveying a message that in war, there are no heroes. There are only the men and women that come together in the face of adversity to make a difference, and to change the world in hopes there will be a better tomorrow.
Dunkirk’s story is told from the perspective of British soldiers on land, at sea, and in the air. The soldiers don’t waste any time with epic monologues – they’re much more concerned about evacuation and staying alive. They’ve survived the war up until this point, and the only thing that stands between themselves and getting home is the English Channel separating England and France. More than one character remarks on how they can practically see their home from the battered beaches of Dunkirk. As Hans Zimmer’s brooding soundtrack kicks in, employing the persistent, terminal noise of a clock ticking the seconds away, soldiers are being methodically evacuated by military ships, and not fast enough for 400,000 bodies to be evacuated quickly. While they wait for their turn to cross the channel, the raw feeling of tension and unbridled desire to be anywhere but Dunkirk is felt without the need to say a single word. It’s felt in almost every scene. This is war, and there is no glory. There is only fear and the human instinct to survive, no matter what the cost.
In the air, we’re introduced to the fighter plane squadron that makes up the only air support overseeing Dunkirk’s evacuation. Through Nolan’s expert direction and camera work, the audience experiences what feels like a very accurate representation of dog-fighting in a Spitfire fighter plane - the claustrophobic cockpit, restricting sight lines, and the stress of having to consider fuel consumption when making any decision, because the plane will eventually need to land. Before the wondrous technology of automatic targeting systems or guided missiles, every shot required expert precision and preparation long before pulling the trigger. With my own experience of watching war films, especially during scenes of air combat, the screen is often peppered with machine guns firing, fighter planes dog-fighting, and massive explosions. Here, we are gifted with seeing what feels like the most realistic portrayal of aerial combat - quick shots of the pilots anxiously looking through their rear view and seeing the silhouette of a plane on their heels, failing repeatedly to line up fatal kill shots, and the process of waiting and observing. It felt real.
In addition to witnessing the events in the air and on land, we are introduced to a father, his son, and their friend, who answer the British Navy’s call for civilian boats to aid in the Evacuation of Dunkirk; only instead of surrendering their requisitioned vessel for the Navy to pilot, they commandeer the boat themselves. Their part in the film’s narrative is quite different, as they are civilians and not equipped for any sort of combat. Early on in their journey, they come across a shell-shocked soldier suffering from PTSD. In rescuing him, a unique can of worms is opened for them upon him finding out they are sailing straight towards the very place he was trying to escape from. This perspective was incredibly compelling to watch - being civilians smack dab in the middle of a military conflict, walking on eggshells around a mentally unstable soldier. This drives the idea home that not all war heroes are soldiers - They are men and women of all ages with the overpowering desire to help their own, and in the war film genre, these people are nowhere near recognized enough for their contributions to the war effort.
In Dunkirk's opening minutes, we’re presented with what feels like the most serene scene in the entire film. The air is filled with propaganda flyers fluttering to the ground while a group of soldiers make their way down an empty street. Some stop to read the flyers and another stops to unbuckle his belt to take a shit. It goes from certain calm to utter bedlam in a split second when the soldiers come under roaring machine gun fire. The soldiers begin running for cover and a few moments later, there is only one left hiding behind a fence he jumped to survive. For a moment, the gunfire ceases. And as the soldier collects himself, even more machine gun fire rips the gate he’s hiding behind into splinters, forcing him to take off again. These subtle choices in direction really drove the idea home that these soldiers are regular people, with families and lives outside of this battlefield, and all they want to do is come home in one piece.
With all these perspectives intertwined into Dunkirk’s powerful yet simple narrative, what is born is a film that recognizes the monstrosity of war, and the toll it takes on the people involved. It explores the idea that a war is not won by the actions of a single group of people, but by a collaborative effort of men and women working together. There are no individual heroes in war. Without the civilian response, there may have been 400,000 dead soldiers instead of 380,000 rescued. Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s cinematic love letter of appreciation and understanding for the sacrifices made by men and women in the war effort. It is brilliantly executed in a powerfully emotional film which hardly leaves time for words, but instead purely conveys its message visually with beautiful, unparalleled clarity. Dunkirk is an absolute must-see film this summer, and watching it anywhere other than a theatre would be an injustice.