This review contains major spoilers.
Christopher Nolan’s new film “Dunkirk” is a World War II drama that focuses on the British Expeditionary Force’s evacuation at the town of Dunkirk, on the northern coast of France.
In May 1940, Allied forces were surprised with a German blitzkrieg that bombarded the British troops and slowly pushed them toward the French port of Dunkirk. The only hope for Britain—and for the future of the free world—was to get as many men off the beaches as possible before time ran out. For the men on the beaches to survive, they had to work together, remain calm, and hope that someone would come for them.
“Dunkirk” is not a war movie in the mold of “Saving Private Ryan,” “We Were Soldiers,” or any of the hundreds of other war films that have come before it. What makes “Dunkirk” different is not just that there isn’t a whole lot of gore (there is no blood shown even when people are shot), but that Nolan’s focus is different than most other war films.
In Nolan’s Film, The Germans Aren’t The Primary Enemy
First thing: the enemy. Everyone knows that the Allies are fighting Nazi Germany and that it’s the Germans that are closing in around them. However, not a single German soldier is shown in the film (except at the very end, unfocused in the background). The Germans are not the primary antagonist in this film—time is.
Nolan portrays the Germans as an elusive cloud: if they reach the beach, they will win. This makes the German threat much larger and real. In the first scene, a group of British soldiers are fired upon by an unseen foe, and their first reaction is to run. The only “Germans” shown are the airplanes, and they are still intimidating. The calmness on the beach is broken in scenes by the screaming sounds of German dive bombers.
Men waiting patiently to get on a ship suddenly scatter, and in less than a minute chaos ensues as men die and ships are sunk. When a bomber or a fighter is shot down, more quickly appear. It feels that no matter how many aircraft the British pilots shoot down, more appear on the horizon. The German “monster” is both dangerous and relentless, and the film’s heroes cannot win against them. This is why time is so key to the story: the heroes can win against time, though it is always challenging them as well.
Nolan decided to break the film up into three plotlines, each on a different timeline. The Mole (the beach) is a week, the sea is a day, and the air is an hour.
In each storyline, three heroes face their enemy: time. The beaches need to be evacuated before the Germans arrive, a beached ship needs to wait six hours before the tide comes in, the crew at sea must decide whether they can save a downed airman or return home to save an injured crewman. The pilot in the air has to decide whether he has enough time to take out a bomber and make it back home.
Each decision has a consequence. Time does beat the heroes: the pilot is captured as his plane runs out of gas, and the crewman dies because the crew decides to save many more lives in a ship wreck. To stress even further that time is the enemy, during suspenseful scenes, the soundtrack has a ticking sound that gets louder and louder.
The Heroes In ‘Dunkirk’ Are Regular Human Beings
Nolan’s next major break from more traditional war movies is in his heroes. Today, when one says “hero,” we instantly think of brightly-colored capes and feats of strength unimaginable to the average person. Those movies do sell, as “Wonder Woman” and “Spider-Man” have shown. “Dunkirk” will likely get nowhere near those box office standings, but the film’s protagonists are still heroes.
Although there’s no back story provided for any of them—no wife or girlfriend back home, no reason why they are fighting, nothing—somehow this movie makes its characters more real than most. These are just average people who have found themselves thrust into a great historical event. Christopher Nolan remembers that, and keeps the film focused on these small characters, even at the climax of the movie.
While other movies often end with a great battle, in “Dunkirk,” the three climaxes are much less dramatic. The crew on the ship avoid a strafing fighter and fire in the water, the pilot downs a bomber, and the soldier is rescued from a sinking ship. These events, although significant to the heroes, are small on the grand scale of Dunkirk. But the whole point of the movie was to survive and beat time, and each one of these heroes attempts to do just that, with some succeeding more than others.
This Is Nolan’s Greatest Film
Two moments in the movie really stood out: the first is the arrival of the small boats (civilian) at Dunkirk, displaying the valiant national effort to save Britain’s troops, and the second when British soldiers arrive home and an older man hands them blankets, saying “thank you.” A soldier responds, “All we did was survive.” The older man replies, “That is enough.”
We find out he’s blind, and I believe a veteran of World War I who cannot see because of a mustard gas attack. This again links to the idea that sometimes being able to walk away from such a violent and destructive event is enough to be thankful for.
“Dunkirk” ends with a montage of the heroes’ conclusion from the end of the Dunkirk evacuation: the pilot is captured, the boat crew get their friend who died posted in the local newspaper, and the soldier is safe on a train reading Churchill’s “we will fight them on the beaches” address to the Commons. Nolan could have made Churchill appear and give the address, while displaying a montage of the Royal Air Force, Navy, and army preparing for the defense of their island. This quiet ending shows the risk Nolan took in not making a traditional war movie.
It is a good thing that “Dunkirk” has exceeded box office expectations, and that there is a market for movies that show heroism in regular human beings. Because “Dunkirk” should not be viewed as just another successful movie in Christopher Nolan’s already successful filmmaking career. It should be considered his greatest film.