Nolan’s’ latest foray is a non-stop, heart-pounding adaptation of one of the most fraught moments in early World War II – the evacuation of 300,000+ English and French troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, with the Nazi army encroaching on all sides. With this final move, Germany would sweep through the rest of France and essentially hold all of Europe under its iron grip for years.
While the real life story is harrowing and amazing, I came into the movie optimistic that Nolan would once again provide cinema gold. In my opinion, I found something lacking compared to previous efforts, but I am not sure I can put my finger on it. Dunkirk, a cinematic jewel on all technical aspects, rang hollow to me.
The movie has three converging story lines over three time periods:
The Mole, which is the beach/staging area where hundreds of thousands of troops and equipment lay in wait for evacuation by sea to Britain occurs over a week.
The Sea, which is a small weekender’s yacht piloted by a father and his son as well as a fellow teenage hired hand that join a flotilla of other citizen-owned vessels that set off across the channel to save as many men as possible, occurs within the span of one day.
The Air, focused on a trio of RAF Spitfire pilots who serve as the only air support authorized for assisting in the evacuation, occurs within the span of an hour.
The three story lines converge as the film progresses, overlapping and filling in gaps that you start to notice as the movie kicks off with jump cuts to different time lines. It almost has a feel of Inception in that regard. There is the massive tragedy unfolding as thousands of men are trapped on the beach and mercilessly bombed and gunned down by Luftwaffe forces – who in a flagrant betrayal of conventional warfare attacked clearly marked hospital ships – sending many to a watery grave after they thought they were finally going home. Additionally, there’s the tragic incident of losing a boy who’s not much older than the ones fighting in Europe, and the futility of sending three planes on half tanks of fuel to hold off an entire invasion and pursuit force. As if that weren’t enough, the dynamic of the British “wanting to save their own” first at the expense of their French allies was another uncomfortable dynamic. While the British still had a “home” to flee to, France was all but already lost to the Germans, and ironically the French forces formed the majority of the defensive line that allowed so many men to survive the harrowing siege. I guess you never know how you’d react in the horrors of war to stay alive, but as the film explored, everyone loses some humanity at some point and it’s how you react that can shape a better future.
I just don’t know what made me not ‘love’ this as much as other Nolan works. I tell you one thing though, this movie sent me to the edge of a real panic attack with the pacing and terror of running from an enemy that surrounds you on all sides with no real hope of rescue. Maybe that’s why I can’t ‘love’ this. It’s simply too ‘real’, and therefore inherently uncomfortable. Hans Zimmer and his intense, non-stop score did nothing but add to the urgency and background panic of the film.
It ends on a feel-good note but it was a Pyrrhic victory both in real life and on the screen. While enough troops were rescued to make fighting a larger war with Germany possible, the losses were tremendous and it would take months before the Allies would be able to recover to the point of pushing back. Many lost their lives or their freedom (being captured by the enemy) to allow others to escape and live to fight another day. The movie was notable for a lack of dialogue, with many sequences just focusing on the roar of enemy dive bombers and the panic of the soldiers hopelessly pinned down and defenseless. It was the correct stylistic choice and there were solid acting performances from Tom Hardy and surprisingly from Harry Styles of One Direction fame (or infamy).
Even though I wasn’t enthralled or captivated as much as I was for Nolan’s last great epic, Interstellar, Dunkirk is still worth a watch and Nolan should be commended for a commitment to shooting on film to capture a more realistic and fluid story.
Golden Squid Rating
An Intense War Epic