(Disclaimer: There are “spoilers” ahead, but considering the film is based on historical events, are they really spoilers?)
Having been educated in the American school system, the battle and evacuation of Dunkirk is something I had never heard of prior to this film. It’s a shame, really, considering it’s not only a decisive moment during World War II, but it’s also a miraculous moment in and of itself.
That being said, this film isn’t a history lesson. There’s no explanation of the events that led to the circumstances at hand. All we know is that there are hundreds of thousands of French and British soldiers trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, shielding themselves from enemy fire and aerial bombing as they wait for ships to take them away. From the start, you’re thrown into the action and have to catch up along the way.
In that way, this film is immersive, focusing only on this specific moment with little reference to the past or future. This is enhanced by the portrayal of the characters. While we follow a series of men throughout the film, the lack of names, backstories and dialogue make it so that the audience isn’t attached or opposed to any character in particular. It’s as if the film could have followed any other soldiers and their experiences would have been identical. Because of this, you find yourself rooting for the soldiers. You don’t know anything about them on a personal level, but you empathize with them and want them to survive simply because they’re human.
One central aspect of this film is time, which is to be expected from a Christopher Nolan-directed film. We see separate storylines—soldiers on the mole, pilots in the air, and civilians at sea—all of which have different timelines spanning from hours to days. And as the film jumps between these storylines, this nonlinear timing can be confusing to follow.
For example, in one scene, a soldier (played by Cillian Murphy) is rescued at sea during the day. He is clearly in shock; he is withdrawn and standoffish towards those who saved him and demands they return home immediately rather than attempt to save more soldiers. In a later scene at night, the same soldier is seen in a lifeboat going towards Dunkirk, completely unfazed. While this sequence was likely intended to portray PTSD and the overall emotional effect of war, it’s at that point when you become aware of the nonlinear timing and begin to question how the movie is unfolding.
A standout feature of the film is the score by Hans Zimmer. The music was so well thought out, perfectly setting the scene and conveying the emotional state of the characters to the audience. In one particular scene, British Commander Bolton (played by Kenneth Branagh) is on the mole looking out into the distance. A dissonant orchestration plays in the background, making for an uneasy feeling. As the camera pans out, the score crescendos and you brace yourself for what is about to happen, sure that the enemy will attack any minute. But then the music fades and the camera focuses on the sea, where civilians on their pleasure boats wave to the men on land. Commander Bolton says he sees “home,” and the score is harmonious, conveying the happiness of the relieved soldiers.
Another musical feature that stood out was the underlying ticking sound throughout the film, which adds to the suspense and induces the feeling of anxiety. The ticking stops at the very end, and if you hadn’t noticed it during the movie, you notice it then, as there’s an obvious sense of relief.
In the end, this movie showcases a unique perspective of the war. It doesn’t show the bravery and courage of the soldiers but rather their uncertainty and helplessness. It is the civilians, instead, who are the heroes who sacrificed their lives to save their fellow countrymen.
And while the Battle of Dunkirk was not a victory, the film makes sure to emphasize it was not a complete defeat. Upon being saved by a civilian boat, Alex (played by Harry Styles) says something along the lines of, “We’ve let you down, haven’t we?” He’s worried about how they will be received by the British public, too ashamed to read what is written about them in the newspaper. However, he is surprised to be greeted by cheers and celebration from the British people, as Tommy (played by Fionn Whitehead) reads Churchill’s famous “We will fight on the beaches” speech in the paper.
This film tells an important, moving story that deserves to be told and Nolan, Zimmer, and the cast did an excellent job of capturing the gravity of the situation in a cinematically pleasing way. Overall, I highly recommend watching Dunkirk.