War films have been a staple on the art of cinema since its inception. Although brutal from human loss and devastation, those factors create an environment highly conducive to providing a crucible to explore the depths of the human condition running the gamut from jingoistic fervor to heartbreaking sacrifice. During World War II the movie studios provided entertainment that bolstered the morale of the public as the war waged on. The current world situation war is still prevalent but not in the concentrated form of the forties. War movies remain a powerful genre that can become a template for potential greatness. Among the latest directors to undertake this format is Christopher Nolan. Considered one of the most creative and well-respected filmmakers of his generation. From movies that reinvented the comic book genre, his Batman trilogy, to mind-bending experiences as ‘Memento,’ and ‘Inception’ he has redefined many aspects of the use of cinema as a means of artistic expression. As soon as the announcement was released that his next project would involve the Dunkirk evacuation of World War II, I was filled with anticipation. Once I received my review copy and was able to immerse myself in the film my expectations were exceeded greatly. Like many film buffs, I great up watching the great war films of the previous generation as they introduced us to the fantastically talented actors, directors, and screenwriters. Now the proverbial torch has been passed and in the vanguard, is Mr. Nolan. The actual military action known as Operation Dynamo was among the most inspiring feats of bravery found in armed conflict. The goal was not destruction of enemy forces but the supreme act of human kindness resulting in the evacuation of 338,226 from the beaches of France. It was hailed as a miracle and remains one of the most uplifting stories to come from the inhumane tragedy of global conflict.
Mr. Nolan has managed to return his movie to the golden age of Hollywood when the cast of extras numbered in the thousands and the credits rolling by featured a significant number of the most sought-after talent in the industry. Without glorifying the themes of war, this film is epic by all conceivable standards. The story follows the facts. With an event such as this, the historical account contains the pathos and emotional roller coaster worthy of such an epic endeavor. Of course, the usual caveat about the use of dramatic license remains in effect. Such alterations are typically required for factors like pacing, continuity and expediting exposition. Under the hand of a creative genius as Christopher Nolan, the result is staggeringly effective. In a stylistic decision that reinforces the filmmaking flair possessed by Mr. Nolan, he has divided this sweeping epic into three distinct yet interwoven threads, The Mole, The Water and The Air. Each covers a specific aspect of the mission highlighting different human reactions, drives, and experiences. An excellent use of variable pacing enhances the effectiveness of splitting the story with each thread presenting the events of a diminishing period from a week to a day to a single hour. The overall effect is purposely disorienting, emotionally suitable to reflect the events and assist the viewers to experience in some small way the general confusion intrinsically part of the war.
Mr. Nolan is undoubted of the influential filmmakers redefining the use of imagery in telling a story. He is capable of unworldly scenes expressing the sights far beyond the limitations of reality to a gritty depiction of life that draws the audience intimately into the narrative. This is substantiated by Nolan movies the fantasy brought to life in ‘Inception’ and the dark urban feel of a city in distress seen in the Dark Knight trilogy. For the first thread of this film, he brings the audience into city streets in the immediate aftermath of horrific violence. A group of soldiers is walking through a deserted street. The camera angles frame the men against buildings in such a fashion that a look of normalcy is infused with a sense of inherent danger lying beneath the surface. The hand of one man reaches through a window feeling for a cigarette while another man bends to take a drink from a hose. A sound that might be buzzing insects take on a dire nature as they change to the thud of bullets finding their targets. Another soldier glances at a map of the area highlighting the region.in an act that is fundamentally human and universally relatable the man unbuckles his pants and squats. Even in the midst of desolation, the most basic of biological needs must be attended. Thankfully most of us have ever endured combat and are unable to connect with the characters on that level. We all have that experience humanizing the character and allowing to understand him on an emotional level. There is little need for dialogue. This thread is intended to reach out to the audience viscerally reaching the most fundamental portion of our brains concerned with the most primitive needs.
We are next taken to a port where we are introduced to a father, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and who are unloading a small pleasure craft. They are being helped by a teenager, George (Barry Keoghan), ostensibly to prepare the vessel which was conscripted into the evacuation mission. Instead of fulfilling those orders the three men set course on another course. It leads them to a flotilla of various civilian boats consisting anything that can float from work boats to tugs. Together the rag-tag fleet set off to cross the English Channel. Along the way, they encounter an officer who had been a ship sunk by the Germans. The man is suffering from what was then referred as ‘shell shock’ but now would be classified as PTSS. Upon realizing that his rescuers were headed along the coast rather than across the channel, he attempts to take the controls. During the confrontation, George receives a blow to the head rendering him blind.
The final thread considered brings the audience into the air, above the carnage that has enveloped the ground. Three British Spitfires are engaged in a dogfight with their German aerial counterparts. Weaving in and out of the cloud cover each plane desperately for a momentary edge to down their target. Although distinct in their specific slice of the narrative the different threads overlap and become entwined. During the aerial combat, the Spitfires can save a minesweeper but at a cost. One of the English planes is critically damaged forcing the pilot to ditch the doomed plane, in the water he is rescued by Dawson’s boat.
For the most part, the characters remain unnamed. When a name is spoken it is incidental; there is little emphasis on the characters as individuals. Their backstories are irrelevant. The only true concerns are rank, mission and overriding the instinct to flee danger, charging in for the greater good. This was a huge effort on the part of the Allied forces, but Mr. Nolan brought the inconceivable, frantic horror down to terms that the audience can readily understand and better relate to personally. The primary focus of the film was a microcosm as seen from the perspective of individuals. One of the elements that propel this movie into the heights of great war film is the way Mr. Nolan was able to set the individuals against the larger backdrop of the war. Death and insanity surround each of the men in their specific segment, but one commonality remains attempting to condense their focus on what they must accomplish. The lines of demarcation between the three narrative threads are blurred by stylistic consideration such as switching between day and night, for the men involved in this massive rescue missions time is suspended, reduced to survive each moment in turn.