I first saw Dunkirk* last year while it was still in theaters. While I definitely enjoyed it, the experience was hampered by the fact that I still find some British accents hard to understand without subtitles (especially in loud action scenes) and the non-linear storytelling was confusing, even though my brother had warned me about it.
A recent second viewing, however, confirmed for me the true genius of this film.
Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception, Interstellar), tells the incredible true story of the rescue of 300,000 Allied soldiers from the French coast during the early days of World War II. After eight months of relative peace and inactivity known as “The Phony War,” the Nazis took the world by surprise: they invaded the Netherlands, Belgium, and France in one fell swoop and trapped the British and French armies between the town of Dunkirk and the English Channel.
The beleaguered soldiers probably would’ve been wiped out if not for the courageous English citizens who rushed to their aid in fishing boats and pleasure yachts. The Royal Navy and Air Force were already stretched thin, divided between evacuating the soldiers and protecting England itself from a possible invasion. If those ordinary citizens hadn’t answered the frantic call for help, the story of the Battle of Britain might’ve ended very differently.
Dunkirk is divided into three separate storylines: a young British soldier whose ordeal begins ONE WEEK before the arrival of “the little ships,” a father and son who leave England in their boat ONE DAY before, and two Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots who head towards Dunkirk ONE HOUR before the little ships. These stories are told simultaneously, so you definitely have to pay attention and keep track of the timelines if you want the movie to make any sense–but they’re all converging and hurtling towards a single, critical point in time.
The terror and uncertainty of the apparently inevitable annihilation of the British army–and maybe even the British nation–are palpable in each alternating storyline. The young soldier fights to simply survive one more day on Luftwaffe-riddled beaches. The father and son defy a shell-shocked soldier’s emphatic pleas to run for their lives, far away from Dunkirk. The pilots scramble to protect both the Navy and the little ships from Nazi attacks. King and Country depend on all of them to come home safe and sound…so that they, in turn, can defend Home.
Crisp, spartan dialogue, a chilling soundtrack punctuated by the nearly incessant ticking of a clock, and the overlapping stories effectively convey the overwhelming desperation and urgency of those days in May 1940.
If you’re up to two hours of non-stop suspense and a full immersion into one of the greatest rescue stories of all time, give Dunkirk a try! There are a couple of F-bombs to watch out for, as well as three disturbing scenes involving sinking ships–but there’s surprisingly little blood or gore. And again, the different timelines can be tricky–but the story and compelling performances from Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and Mark Rylance are definitely worth a little extra attention to detail and chronology.
Appropriately, the film ends with an excerpt of Winston Churchill’s famous speech, delivered to the House of Commons days after the Dunkirk evacuation finally ended. Interestingly enough, Darkest Hour* (which I reviewed in August) also ended with this speech. But these two films go together perfectly, in my opinion–and these words of formidable courage never get old.
We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France. We shall fight on the seas and oceans. We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. And even 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.
–Winston Churchill, June 4, 1940