In the closing week of May 1940 the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and many thousands of allied soldiers were left standard on the beaches of Dunkirk entirely surrounded by the German Army. Facing a highly organised and efficient army and bombs dropping from the air, the Allied troops waited for rescue. Dunkirk is the telling of Operation Dynamo, which led to the rescue of over 300,000 Allied troops.
In 1998 Saving Private Ryan was released in US cinemas, and it brought about numerous articles about how the sheer realism of the film transported veterans back to the beaches of Normandy and Omaha. Articles similar in nature followed the release of Dunkirk, and this goes to show historical films are about experiencing history rather than simply telling it. The main goal of a historical film is not total historical accuracy but allow the viewer to experience history and understand the human aspect of it. Films like Dunkirk are exemplary in doing exactly that.
Dunkirk depicts the experience of the evacuation as intense, brutal and harrowing without ever resorting to gore as shock value. What instead becomes the film’s shock value is the sound design. The monstrous bellowing roar of the German planes descending from the sky, preparing to attack the stranded men below, and the booming explosions of dropped bombs rattle the senses. It’s a visceral, enthralling, utterly captivating experience with Hans Zimmer’s score, which sometimes sounds like a ticking clock (alluding to the race against time scenario the BEF found themselves in), adding to the often unbearable tension.
Christopher Nolan’s war film isn’t a standard war film as it is stripped down of the usual clichés. It’s a stripped-down film that feels wrong to call stripped-down, but gone is any backstory that would help give context to Dunkirk’s importance in the war. Also gone is any soldier camaraderie and remising about home, and whilst this may sound like character is lost amongst the explosions and dogfights this certainly isn’t the case. Much of the character development is done with actions rather than words with Cillian Murphy’s character clearly showing signs he is wrestling with his guilty conscience for his cowardice.
To distance itself from being a typical war film Nolan took the interesting step of having three narratives (land, sea and air) eventually intertwine, yet each story is told over a different period of time (one week, one day, one hour) and they all converge at the same time. This clever way of telling the story adds further tension to the film as certain scenes would lack the same level of tension if the film followed a standard liner narrative. It’s a risky move and whilst it doesn’t feel like a whole week has passed for those on the land, overall it’s an effective story telling technique.
The acting is perfectly fine, but the film belongs to Nolan (who does take one or two risks with the minimal dialogue and narrative style) and his crew. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography throws the viewer in midst of the intensity of the explosions (with the drowning sequence in particular being the most distressing) and whilst some of the dialogue lacks clarity, Dunkirk is a stunning, technically sound telling of a miraculous evacuation in which over 300,000 soldiers were saved to fight another day (the true scale of the evacuation is lost somewhat). Dunkirk is a powerful, deeply emotional and involving film.