Before you can judge Dunkirk for everything that it is, you must acknowledge everything that it is not. Is it a great piece of cinematic work? Yes. Is it visually beautiful? Check. Does it know how to cause its audience the sweet annoyance of anticipation and fear? It does. But that does not mean it is perfect by any means of the imagination, and the most important thing you can know about this movie before you choose to sit down and watch it is that this is not a war movie by the most general definition. Christopher Nolan is an artistic director and one who thrives on the complexities in a story, not in the straightforward narrative, and he chose the Battle of Dunkirk specifically to reflect that. He tells the story the way an artist would, not the way a storyteller might, or even the way that someone present at the event itself might have. He took three different stories and wove them together to showcase the entirety of the battle in the best way he knew how, and while that makes for a great visual for all those who love film and its artistry, it might not always be the best way to tell the story of a battle we’re not always taught about in history class.
In 1940, over 400,000 British soldiers are trapped in the French port town of Dunkirk, waiting for evacuation as the French soldiers in the area push back against the Germans. The German airplanes are closer and able to bomb the British soldiers and ships before any of the British Air Force can fly out to face them, and the ships being bombed in the harbor are quickly becoming blockades against any destroyers that come to rescue the soldiers. With the majority of their forces stranded on the island, Britain begins to send out civilian ships to rescue their forces. Dunkirk tells the story of the nearly two weeks on the beach through three sets of eyes : a British soldier named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) trying desperately to get himself onto a boat out of Dunkirk, of a fighter pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) using every second of his hour’s worth of gas to attempt to protect the boats and soldiers, and of civilian Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) who takes his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his friend George (Barry Keoghan) on their trip across the bay to bring soldiers home on their pleasure boat.
Dunkirk is not your average war film, so Nolan is not going to tell you the story of Dunkirk in an average way. This is not Saving Private Ryan (1998), which is all about explosions and gunfire and blood. Don’t get me wrong, Dunkirk still has those things, but they are not the focus. In order to tell the story of Dunkirk battle, Nolan separated the narrative into three pieces with three different layers of time (continuing his and composer Hans Zimmer’s fascination with both the sound and the concept of time) , since everyone involved in the rescue experienced the events in different ways. The soldiers who were on the beach were there for a week, the civilians who took out their boats were on the water for a day, and the fighter pilots only had the gas available to stay in the air for an hour. Because of this there are multiple moments that the audience will see twice, from different perspectives, and all of it adds the overall tension of the film. This tension is occasionally met with torpedoes hitting the battleships, of course, but that doesn’t stop the pit in your stomach from wondering what big bad is still to come. This puts you into the mindset of the soldiers on the field, even when you’re elsewhere in the film, waiting for rescue and uncertain if it will ever come. All of this is enveloped in beautiful shots of the beach of Dunkirk, the fiery explosions of battleships in the water, and the sky battles of the fighter pilots, all shot in the most aesthetically pleasing way without taking away the danger of war.
Because this is not a typical war film, there are bits and pieces that don’t connect to the average audience quite as well as they would if it were a typical war film. Many of the characters we are presented with have no names, at least not that you catch very often, and several of them look very similar so it is difficult to keep track of any of them. Honestly, I only know Tommy’s name because I’ve seen the movie and now read the synopsis, and he looks almost exactly like Gibson and Alex (again, another two characters whose names I only know because I looked them up). This means that there is really no connection to any one character in the movie at all, no hero to really root for, and no real development either. Not to mention that several characters mumble their lines, or the sound of warfare covers them up, so even if they were calling each other by name you probably missed it, and they honestly don’t talk all that much to begin with. Nolan didn’t care about giving us any one protagonist or characters to learn about – many of the people in this movie have no name at all, even Cillian Murphy who has a decent amount of dialog and story importance is credited as ‘shivering soldier’ – but wanted us to connect with the soldiers as a whole. For the average moviegoer, this may make for a less pleasant experience, because the beauty of the image is not as important as the story, and what is a story without characters?
Perhaps the greatest disappointment for the average moviegoer is that Dunkirk kind of dropped the ball on the importance of Dunkirk. Nolan put a great deal of effort into shooting the most beautiful images, to creating the timeline so that it flowed as perfectly as three stories could, but it could (and would) be easy for the audience to be so swept up in the majesty of the craftsmanship that they miss the point of the story. It is stated a few times by Navy Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) that it is important to get as many of the British soldiers out of Dunkirk and back home so that they can defend the country against the ever-looming invasion of the Germans, but it was estimated that with the attacks by air and sea that only 30,000 of the 400,000 would be rescued. Thanks to the civilian boats, almost 300,000 men were saved, and though their retreat from Dunkirk was viewed as a military disaster, the survival of the bulk of the British forces meant that they would be able to continue defending the Allied powers in the war. The loss at Dunkirk inspired hundreds of thousands to continue fighting in the war and made sure that the spirit of the Allies stayed strong. Because there is so little dialogue, this is something that may not have occurred to the audience (at least if they didn’t know much about Dunkirk to begin with) and while the ending monologue is meant to remind us of that lesson, repeating the words of Winston Churchill might not have been the clearest way to emphasize the triumph of Dunkirk. And, at the end of the day, the beauty of a film doesn’t mean nearly as much if it cannot explain the importance of the moment that it portrays.
The film major in me is arguing with the storyteller, and that makes rating Dunkirk difficult. As a film major, I enjoyed the film and walked out satisfied. But the people who walked in expecting a shoot-em-up war film were highly disappointed, and not all of their arguments are invalid. It is important to know that Dunkirk is not a war film like you might imagine, not like other war films have been before, and it’s easy to be disappointed when your expectations of something are different than what the film actually turns out to be.
For war film lovers: 2.5 / 5
For film lovers: 4 / 5
If you need more convincing, know that a real life veteran of Dunkirk saw the movie and praised its accuracy, so, there’s that.