Written and directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D'Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy
Dunkirk is one of the great untold stories in modern cinema. Having made a trip on a small boat across the Channel about 25 years ago, the roughness of the water, the sheer physical challenge of making that crossing - but without anybody dropping bombs, without traveling into a war zone - cemented in my mind an extraordinarily high level of admiration for the people who in 1940 just got into those little boats and came over to help the soldiers. - Christopher Nolan, in a Time interview, explaining why he chose to make a movie about the Dunkirk evacuation.
Christopher Nolan's latest film, Dunkirk, is a World War II-set drama that looks a lot like an epic but feels like a thriller. It has many of the elements of a post-Saving Private Ryan war movie - shot on or near the French port city of Dunkerque (better known in English as Dunkirk) and featuring some of the actual "little ships" used during Operation Dynamo - but tosses away many of the usual conventions of the genre.
Dunkirk is a fictional account of the evacuation of over 300,000 soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force from northern France as vast German armies attempt to snare them in front of the English Channel. From May 21 to June 4, 1940, nearly 400,000 Allied troops, including French and Belgian divisions which were badly battered by the German Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe attack on the West that began on May 9, fought desperately to maintain a shrinking perimeter around Dunkirk while the Royal Navy and hundreds of small civilian vessels wrested the BEF from the jaws of certain defeat by the Nazi armies.
Nolan departs from the conventions of big war epics in his retelling of Operation Dynamo by using a non-linear storytelling technique. Instead of trying to mimic The Longest Day or A Bridge Too Far and their episodic docudrama approach to World War II battles, Dunkirk challenges viewers and asks them to follow three major threads (Land, Air, and Sea), each one covering different periods of time.
|British troops wait for deliverance at the Mole in Dunkirk. (C) 2017 Warner Bros. Pictures|
The Mole is the land-based plot thread and takes place during one week. It follows the travails of several British and French soldiers who make their way to the beaches at Dunkirk to await either their deliverance or their capitulation to the Germans. Here, young BEF privates Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles) face danger from Luftwaffe air attacks as well as torpedo attacks from German navy E-boats against the Allied ships off shore.
|Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson in Dunkirk (C) 2017 Warner Bros. Pictures|
The Sea is, of course, the saga of the "little boats" as seen mainly through the eyes of Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a civilian mariner who sets sail aboard the Moonstone, a privately-owned motor yacht requisitioned by the Royal Navy to assist in the massive evacuation now underway. He is accompanied by his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and their dock hand George (Barry Keoghan), a teenager who impulsively joins them on their journey to the French coast. Their timeline covers one day's worth of events.
|Spitfires prepare to dogfight with enemy planes in Dunkirk. (C) 2017 Warner Bros. Pictures|
The Air follows a three-plane "vic" of Royal Air Force Spitfires, including one flown by Pilot Officer Farrier (Tom Hardy). Nolan limits the airborne guardian angels' timeline to one hour, echoing the real-time endurance of a Spitfire over the battle area before its fuel runs out.
Nolan doesn't approach Dunkirk as a war drama. There are very few wide, panoramic vistas of the battlefield (or, as many filmmakers call them, "God shots") in Dunkirk. Instead, the complex structure of Nolan's screenplay is designed to ratchet up the suspense as the audience - some of whose members are not familiar with the Miracle at Dunkirk - wonders what will happen to Tommy, Alex, Mr. Dawson, and Farrier. And, by and large, it succeeds, even though Nolan admits that he deliberately depicts the weather during the operation as rougher than it was for dramatic effect.
Dunkirk is a movie that could only have been made by someone with a proven track record in Hollywood. It is unlikely that we'd be talking about it if anyone other than the man behind the successful Dark Knight trilogy of Batman movies, Inception, and Interstellar had pitched Dunkirk to a U.S. studio. Its cast is entirely European, and because it's set in an era when Britain was less racially diverse than it is now, it depicts a BEF made up by white Englishmen. Only one black French soldier, more than likely from Senegal, is seen on screen. And this being 1940, when the U.S. was officially neutral in what was then called the European War, there are no American actors anywhere to be seen.
For all that, Dunkirk is - and deservedly so - a critical and popular success in North America. Not only does it feature great performances from its cast, but it is a throwback to the "we are all in this together" spirit that was so prevalent 77 years ago but now is only a dim memory in an age that celebrates individualism at the expense of the community. Its highly experimental structure - a triptych - demands much from a viewer at first, but once the audience gets its bearings, it's not hard to follow the three separate story lines and understand the true meaning of Dunkirk.
This film is one of the best World War II movies I've ever seen. It tells a story of courage and selfless sacrifice, love of country, and. reflected by the actions of Kenneth Branagh's character at the film's conclusion, loyalty to one's allies and comrades in arms. And, remarkably, it is an epic film without the baggage of an obligatory love story or an overlong running time. (At 106 minutes, Dunkirk is slightly longer than your average movie comedy, which is unusual for a historical drama.)
When Eliza Berman of Time magazine asked Nolan why he had chosen to make Dunkirk for a 2017 audience, the 46-year-old director replied:
We live in an era when the idea of too many people piling into one boat to try and cross difficult waters safely isn't something that people can dismiss as a story from 1940 anymore. We live in an era where the virtue of individuality is very much overstated. The idea of communal responsibility and and communal heroism and what can be achieved through community is unfashionable. Dunkirk is a very emotional story for me because it represents what is being lost.
Source: "The Miracle of Dunkirk: Christopher Nolan Turns One of World War II's Most Dramatic Events Into a Cinematic Masterpiece," Stephanie Zacharek, Time magazine, July 31, 2017 issue
"Christopher Nolan's Great War," Eliza Berman, Time magazine, July 31, 2017 issue.