Film Review: Dunkirk

“Hardships make or break people.” -Margaret Mitchell

War films of the last 30 years or so follow a standard storytelling formula. They focus on a handful of individuals and let the audience learn and care about them as the story progresses. Think of Saving Private Ryan (1998) or Platoon (1986). The idea behind this formula is that audiences will not care about the events that transpire unless they understand and can empathize with the characters. War and warfare is personalized in these movies, and celebrates the every-man or the lives that are changed by war itself. This formula is not bad or boring, after all, who wants to watch a movie about characters that are not developed and the audience cares nothing about? These types of war movies are fundamentally character driven. Dunkirk is not. Dunkirk is driven by tension, mood, and moment rather than characters. Dunkirk is a movie about an event. It is an experiential film instead of a traditional story. Rather than telling the story of the heroism of a few men, Dunkirk tells the story of a moment of national heroism. In short, Dunkirk is a quite literally a triumph.

Dunkirk belongs to an even older type of war film than most audiences might realize. Because the majority of war films from the past few decades have so focused on the individual, most likely due to a cultural celebration of the individual in the United States and the West, most audiences have probably forgotten about movies like Midway (1976), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), The Longest Day (1962), and A Bridge Too Far (1977). These films are largely about a single historical event and the players involved, instead of characters with a backdrop of war. These films usually boast ensemble casts as well, again to emphasize that the events themselves are the focus, not individual characters or performances. Dunkirk follows in this tradition by eschewing standard character development and character driven war narratives. Instead, it tells three interconnected stories within the Battle of Dunkirk, using each story to paint the grander picture of what these events were like for those that experienced them. Quite frankly, I am not sure a movie about the events at Dunkirk could have been told any other way or better. As a historical event film, this sets a new bar.

Dunkirk’s power comes from its pacing and mood. The film has very limited dialogue and most of the story is told by sight and sound. It opens with the scene from the trailer, British soldiers in the town of Dunkirk grabbing German propaganda leaflets dropped from the air. The town is eerily quiet and the soldiers do not speak a word. The silence is broken by the incredibly loud sound of rifle fire. The soldiers and audience both jump, and the soldiers are pursued and attacked by unseen German soldiers. In fact, the Germans are never seen in the film at all beyond a few planes. This helps build the atmosphere of the ever present but unseen enemy, which could strike at any moment. Some of the most effective and terrifying moments in the film are watching the Stukas dive-bomb and strafe the men on the beach, and hearing the unbelievably loud air sirens as they approach. The directing decisions are meant to evoke that sense of unease and tension and desperation that the men on the beach must have felt. After throwing themselves into the sand as the Stukas finish their attack run, they get back up and stand in line to wait their turn to be evacuated. The miracle of Dunkirk is that the British, despite this seemingly hopeless situation, survived to continue the war against Nazi Germany.

I describe Dunkirk as a triumph both in terms of excellence in filmmaking as well as a celebration of victory. The roman triumph celebrated the military successes of Rome’s generals, traditionally against foreign enemies. Triumphs were held and created a sense of pride and power and the glory of Rome as well as her dominance in the world. They become akin to national epics, not founding myths, but important moments that Romans themselves believed were worth celebrating. The Battle of Dunkirk is one of the defining moments of British history and a moment of British national heroism. The British managed to turn the unmitigated military disaster in Europe in 1940 into a strategic and spiritual victory. The Germans had smashed the French and British forces in France and had them isolated. Instead of closing in for the kill and wiping them out, the Germans were content to attack them via the air, under the false impression still in vogue amongst some proponents of air forces today that wars can be won completely by air power. The British did not deploy their full forces in the evacuation, nor did Dunkirk have large enough embarkation points for a mass evacuation. The British activated civilian boats, the little boats of Dunkirk, that ferried men from the beaches to the destroyers or back to Britain itself. When the call went out to save their soldiers, the British people answered. In a moment of disaster, the people of Britain rose to the moment and rescued over 300,000 soldiers trapped between the Germans and the English Channel. Dunkirk is not a celebration of a military victory. It is a celebration of a national victory and symbol of British character and resistance.

If the reader will forgive a digression, I cannot help but wonder whether the United States, as a nation, could rise to the level the British people did at Dunkirk. Our country has been challenged and faced hardship before, and it is unwise to label any country as weak or ripe for picking as the Japanese so assessed the United States prior to WW2. There are moments of extraordinary heroism by civilians in times of crisis, such as the fire fighters and police and others that bravely lost their lives trying to rescue and give assistance during the 9/11 attacks. I would argue, however, that 9/11 is not viewed as a moment of national heroism but as a national tragedy. We do not refer to the spirit of the American people on 9/11 or 9/12. We do not broadly view the American response to 9/11 as anything close to a triumph. There was little national fanfare on November 3, 2014 on the opening of World Trade Center One. The United States withstood the shock of the 9/11 events, but our handling of the events as a people was radically different. Admittedly, it is anachronistic to compare the British national response to events during wartime with an act of terrorism some 60 years later in world that is radically different.

The true distinction, however, is in outlook. The difference between hope and despair is in mindset. Instead of despairing, the British celebrated the evacuation of Dunkirk. Surviving was reason enough to celebrate. The final lines of Dunkirk, aptly, are from Churchill and his speech to the Commons on June 4, 1940: “we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

I was transfixed and moved by Dunkirk. It is a remarkable piece of filmmaking and extremely praiseworthy. Chris Nolan has always been able to transport me and keep me in the emotional power of his stories and this film is no different. Considering that the film is under 2 hours in runtime, I give it even more credit for being so tightly executed. Once the film gets going, it does not let up and kept me in the throes of anxiety from the word go. I celebrated and shed a few tears when the civilian boats arrived at the beaches. I dreaded every pass of the German planes. I knew how the events of this story played out, but I was transfixed all the same. It is a masterful piece of filmmaking. It is a triumphant story. It is an extraordinary event.

4 stars out of 5.

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