DUNKIRK (2017), the latest war narrative by Christopher Nolan, doesn’t concern the battle or even the spoils, but the hectic evacuation of British, French, and Belgium forces during a one-week reprieve in 1940. Told from the perspective of men on the land, in the sea, and on the air, three story lines converge while the men avoiding getting shot by Axis Forces.
Shot on film, the sweeping epic is not just extras climbing over each over, while sand and artillery explode around them. Divergent timelines are initially called out, but after a fashion, you know where you are. On land, hundreds of thousands of soldiers on the ground are looking for a way to get home, but Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles and Aneurin Barnard are our focus. They’re the low men on the totem, just boys in a war directed by men decades older and countries away. They are quick and smart, but mostly they’re scared. They’re terrified and their rides home are being bombed out of the water. This is a week in their lives, and they’re wet and hungry, and desperate. On the wind are Spitfire pilots, Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden, cover their retreat with spectacular dogfights and math. Their time frame is expressed in an hour because that’s how much fuel they have to fight, climbs and get back. By sea, a father and his sons (Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, and Tom Glynn-Carney) load up their small yacht and head to Dunkirk, in a mostly civilian effort to ferry men between the mole and waiting destroyers. Their story is told over a day, pulling men from the water and racing towards their duty. Theirs is likely the most poignant, with moments like when they encounter a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) who realizes too late his rescuers are heading back into the Hell he thought he’d escaped.
At a mere 2 hours, it felt long, if only because there wasn’t a clear narrative objective – just a vivid panorama of war. It was never not tense, and that tension whether it was soldiers hiding from German snipers or dogfighting while low on fuel or tiptoeing around a man on the edge surrounded by miles of water, put you right in the middle of things. War movie aficionados will likely love it. History buffs may have a few quibbles, but if drama is the hook, you can consider yourself snagged in the first three minutes.
DUNKIRK is rated PG-13 for some swears in thick accents, stuff getting blowed up, and the bullet with your name in it you may never see coming.