What if I told you that Christopher Nolan has released a film that is neither ripe with plot issues, nor an epic? Behold, his newest, Dunkirk, a WWII thriller/drama focused on the British military evacuation of soldiers from the shores of a French city in 1940. It also features Harry Styles, who is still only 23-years-old, somehow.
Dunkirk is a French city not far from England’s shores. Imagine being about 45 miles from safety—around the distance from D.C. to Frederick, MD—and your government decides that it’s a good idea to try to evacuate you, but the defense forces and large ships should be saved in case of an invasion of Britain, so you and 400,000 of your brothers are on the cusp of death. The closest areas we (Americans) might associate with the English coast in that area are the White Cliffs of Dover. Many of the soldiers in the film become exasperated upon the realizing they’re so close to home. The British also did not tell their allies that they would be evacuating their troops as a priority.
Yes, this is a war film, but it is not your standard fare. For one thing, the film specifically does not refer to “The Germans,” rather, the military leaders refer to their opponents as “The Enemy.” This is, perhaps, meant to avoid exposition, but at the same time points to a wider definition of an enemy. Fliers float down from above with an illustration of Northern France, a semicircle along the shore, and an ominous red coloring the rest of the continent along with the words “WE SURROUND YOU.” This threat seems to suggest that the only enemy is the one shooting you, but it isn’t. The other major antagonist of this film is the sea.
We follow three stories in the film: a young army soldier on the beach, a trio of fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force, and a civilian vessel captained by an older man (Mark Rylance) alongside two young teen boys, who is responding to an emergency call for small boats to help in the evacuation. Nolan starts the film with a note about the duration of each chapter, which is presumably to prevent unnecessary confusion about the timeline, and it’s very helpful. The beach evacuation is “The Mole” (one week), the second, “The Sea” (one day), and “The Air” (one hour). All three of these stories intertwine and conclude in a supremely satisfying manner.
When the film begins, we are meant to assume that the evacuation has already begun. In the scenes set in the plane, the shots cycle between a close-up of the pilot and a out of their plane. The expansive beach is devoid of the idea of fun or vacation, and is only a reminder of how easy the men are to spot from above. But in the water, the danger comes from all directions, and it is utterly terrifying. As composer Hans Zimmer’s music plays, it underscores the danger in motifs that recall the jaggedness of Jaws.
Since so much of the film is dependent on location Nolan decided it was necessary to go big. Dunkirk was shot using a mix of large format film and IMAX footage, including handheld IMAX cameras in cramped ships, planes, and boats. The screening I attended was not shown in IMAX, and it’s a shame, because it was clear that the immersion—the feeling of being in aerial combat, or the cramped boats, or the struggle to see through a crosshair—is intended to envelop the viewers. That said, not being able to see it in IMAX does not detract from the experience, but I am going to see it a second time, in IMAX.
Dunkirk is technically a work of historical fiction, but Nolan’s focus has centered for so long on humanity that his characters here feel as though they are all true to what a person may have experienced. Some of the characters are based on actual people (Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton is his Captain Tennant). A lot of the decisions made by characters are instinctual, and specialized training aids in survival. To what lengths would you go to save Harry Styles?
I did have to look up a few things after the movie. Any Allied ship that tried to approach needed to navigate the danger zone of minefields, torpedo attacks, and enemy air raids in their approach. The Brits called on small vessels, which could travel across the Channel/North Sea in a matter of hours, as large battleships were slow and obvious targets. If you’re like me and did not know, “mole” means more than just a spy or mammal, it also refers to a massive, long stone structure built in water that differs from a pier in that water cannot flow underneath it. So, Dunkirk’s moles and its beach became the evacuation points that saved hundreds of thousands.
Dunkirk is different for Nolan in that there is little dialogue, is centered on an historical event and is one of the shortest of his to date. All this combined make for a very, very good film, starring young talent, a thousand extras, and Nolan’s regulars Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy. I swear I heard Michael Caine’s voice too at one point, but apparently, he is not in this film. I choose to believe that Phantom Caine is canon. Possibly the most surprising factor of this cast is Mr. Styles himself, who frequently is put into perilous situations that may or may not result in his death by ship. Who knows? If your One Direction-loving friend or sibling or aunt or Mom wants to know the truth, I guess they’ll just have to go see Dunkirk, and sit through one of the best war movies of the decade.