Movie Review: Dunkirk

One of the biggest disasters of World War II is shown in all its horror

Dunkirk
Directed by Christopher Nolan
With Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D'Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy


War films tend to dwell on the big campaigns and hard-won victories. It is not surprising that the story of Dunkirk is not among the most popular themes. While D-Day has dozens of epic retellings from The Longest Day to Saving Private Ryan, not much has been said on screen about Dunkirk.

Those not familiar with the basic history should stop reading and see the film, as there is no way to talk about the film without giving away some key points.

In 1940, before the United States joined World War II, the British and French forces got forced back to the beach at Dunkirk, a town on the coast of France a few miles by sea from Britain. But the navy lacked the resources to evacuate everyone. The navy has decided to requisition civilian pleasure boats to help out. This is where the film begins.

There are three interwoven threads. Soldiers stranded on the beach, civilian captains represented by one particular boat, and the Royal Air Force in the form of three Spitfires.

Nolan's script downplays the usual heroics and big speeches that usually permeate war films. The civilian boat captain, Dawson (played by Mark Rylance) is rather terse, telling his sons simply that they have to go to war as they set out across the channel in a yacht. He doesn't lecture about how there will always be an England. No wives turn up on shore to cry and wave handkerchiefs. The standard clichés don't appear.

The main soldier, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) seems lost most of the time. He has no rifle or helmet and seems to be the only survivor of his unit. He joins up with Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), a soldier who doesn't speak at all. Whitehead is a relative screen newcomer. He doesn't bring any big star expectations with him. Pop star Harry Styles also turns up as a soldier.

The pilots are far too few to fight the Germans, who have command of the skies. The main Spitfire pilots do their best to at least chase off some of the German planes that are strafing and bombing the evacuation ships and the soldiers left defenseless on the beach.

It is a desperate situation and the film doesn't sugarcoat it in a lot of patriotic jargon. One of the survivors picked up, played by Cillian Murphy, is suffering from what we now call PTSD.

The biggest star in the film is Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton. He is the only one to say some dialogue that rings a bit false as he explains the dire situation to other offices. They likely already knew what he is telling them, but he had to say it so the audience could hear it.

Noland is a master director, and he often delves into very convoluted plots, like in Memento and Inception. Here, he tells a straightforward tale from three points of view that sometimes overlap. But he spares the audience any puzzles. For him, it is a stripped down masterpiece.

What might go unnoticed is the score, which is more like something for a horror film. Hans Zimmer created something more akin do dissonant noise than a standard symphonic score. As the situation grows more desperate, the score seems more like free-form sounds coming from twisted metal. It lets up a bit by the end, but still never turns into the sort of patriotic rallying music that most war films end with. Dunkirk is not encouraging people to sign up to fight. It is showing war as an organized disaster.

Few films have shown war in all of its horror. A Russian film called Come and See perhaps is even bleaker, but that is a rare exception. There are some moments of heroism in Dunkirk, but not of the Rambo type. A few ordinary people manage to minimize the scale of the disaster a little bit but no single person rushes in to save the day.

Dunkirk is a must see for anyone interested in war or war films. It is historical filmmaking at its best, without all the clichés and big star moments.

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