by Alan Yudman
When Winston Churchill spoke of a “miracle of deliverance” in June 1940, he was talking about DUNKIRK. The evacuation of allied forces from the beach in northern France was certainly a miracle, as it seemed hopeless. Soldiers surrounded on all sides with their only escape route the English Channel, constantly being bombed from the air and torpedoed from the water. It seemed hopeless, yet the evacuation was an inspiration for the British war effort.
Christopher Nolan captures the desperation, the hope and the valor in his epic retelling of the evacuation of Dunkirk. This could have been a bloated story. Another director might have chosen to show the British high command’s deliberation and planning. Or the ruthless precision of the German Luftwaffe and Navy. But Nolan decided to focus simply on the evacuation from three different perspectives. Soldiers desperate to get off the beach, pilots hopelessly outnumbered engaging an overwhelming enemy as they flew toward France to provide air cover, and the civilian Navy that sailed across the Channel to ferry nearly 200,000 allied soldiers to safety.
While the overall story is huge, Nolan personalizes it. He follows a three soldiers (Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles and Aneurin Barnard) in their desperate attempt to flee. They keep getting on ships. The ships keep blowing up thanks to the Germans. They’re back in the water. He follows a civilian sailor (Mark Rylance) as he takes his boat out with his son and his son’s friend in what seems like the impossible task of rescuing soldiers from the beach. Finally he follows a pilot (Tom Hardy) who heroically battles German fighters and bombers in a David vs. Goliath struggle. Those individuals draw the audience into the story.
That doesn’t mean this is a small or quiet movie. This is big ticket filmmaking. The special effects are some of the best you will ever see in a movie depicting battle. Of special note are the dogfight sequences.The cameras are positioned in such a way that it puts you right in the dogfight. It’s probably nothing new to the video game generation, but in a big Hollywood movie it is something I have seen rarely, if ever. The bombs, the blood, the sinking ships. Nolan pays homage to Steven Spielberg’s opening sequence in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.
What also makes this work is the lack of dialogue. DUNKIRK is a master class in using pictures to tell the story. Don’t tell us, show us! And Nolan certainly shows us. Who needs words when you have powerful visuals? No one, that’s who.
The acting is first rate. I don’t think Hardy has more than a page of dialogue and like in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, his face is obscured for almost the entire movie. But, wow. He conveys emotion and confidence with his eyes and the movement of his head. It’s fabulous. The rest of the cast is very good also. Whitehead and Styles spend most of the movie jumping in and out of the Channel but you get their sense of desperation. Rylance is well, Rylance. A fantastic actor. Kenneth Brannagh plays a British naval commander who is overseeing the evacuation. I think he has the most dialogue in the entire film, but he also does a lot of standing and staring glumly at the desperate scene around him.
Nolan can be a great director, but sometimes he gets in his own way (INTERSTELLAR and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES come to mind). But here he strips it down to the essentials, and less is definitely more. DUNKIRK is a powerful movie that will have you thinking about the meaning of heroism. What makes a hero? Sometimes it’s just a boat. No cape. No superhuman power. It’s what’s inside. Nolan dives deep into the question and comes out with an answer we are familiar with. Regular folks can elevate themselves if the stakes are high enough. The stakes in DUNKIRK were life and death for an entire country, maybe the entire world. Nolan gets the point across in spades. DUNKIRK is an epic story told in supremely compelling fashion. Nolan deserves whatever accolades he will get because this is a fantastic film.