Updated: Feb 4, 2020
Christopher Nolan’s intimate World War II epic Dunkirk relates the evacuation of French, British, Belgian and Dutch soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France. The evacuation took place from May 26 to June 4 1940, though the film appears to condense events into a much shorter time frame.
Dunkirk tells its story using three different narratives. In one of them, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young British soldier, escapes an attack by the Germans and makes it to the beach where he meets another soldier (Aneurin Barnard). Together, they try to get on a boat leaving Dunkirk. The second story follows a man (Mark Rylance who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 2015 for Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies), his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and their teenage assistant (Barry Keoghan) as they use their private boat to help the Navy. The third is about two pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) trying to provide air support for troops on the shore.
At the beginning of this review, I called Dunkirk both intimate and an epic, which seem to be contradictory terms. The film is epic because of its size, but intimate due to its scope. It is a war film and it gives the sense of thousands of troops fighting for their survival. Even though it only focuses on a handful of people, it is clear that there are many more soldiers in similar positions. There are thousands of extras in the film and this is not one of those war movies where it seems like the only characters of any importance are the ones whose stories are specifically being told. It has been filmed (the cinematographer was Hoyte van Hoytema who also shot Nolan’s Interstellar in 2015) in a way that takes perfect advantage of its large cast and on-location shoot.
On the other hand, though it takes place during World War II, it is not a film about World War II. It only tells the story of the evacuation of Dunkirk. It has tunnel vision for this one place during that one time period. Though the Germans are the enemies, I am not sure that the word “Nazi” was used at all in the film. There is no talk about why they are at war or what they are fighting for. Christopher Nolan wanted to make this film so that the heroes of Dunkirk would have their story told. There is no larger political statement here. For the purposes of this particular story, the only war that exists is the one between the soldiers on the beach, their potential rescuers and the German soldiers trying to kill them. Its intimacy comes from its intentional lack of a larger context.
Dunkirk is intense and exciting. Its 107 minute running time (99 minutes without the end credits) absolutely flew by for me. As a war movie, it is probably the best I have seen this decade. But overall, I was not able to get emotionally invested enough in the characters to call this a great film. The performances are solid, but the screenplay (by Nolan) is more interested in the how and why of the situation and less interested in the individual people. His script for this film is only seventy-six pages long, which usually would equate to only seventy-six minutes of screen-time. The short length of the screenplay is because there is very little dialogue. When the characters do speak, it is with immediacy. There is no time for character-building under the circumstances.
While I did find Nolan’s focus on strategy over character interesting, in the end, I was left slightly disappointed. I was not able to connect with the film as strongly as I wanted to. Dunkirk is a very good war movie that successfully honors the soldiers in and around Dunkirk, France during the evacuation. But, as a whole, it falls a little short of greatness.
4 out of 5
Fionn Whitehead as Tommy
Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson
Tom Glynn-Carney as Peter
Tom Hardy as Farrier
Aneurin Barnard as Gibson
Jack Lowden as Collins
Harry Styles as Alex
Barry Keoghan as George
Cillian Murphy as Shivering Soldier
Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton
James D’Arcy as Colonel Winnant
Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan