On some level, the events surrounding the Dunkirk evacuation could be considered a somewhat unusual choice for a major Hollywood production. For one thing, while what happened there has acquired somewhat legendary status, at least in the UK, it’s hard to classify it as anything other than a major defeat for the Allies, which don’t tend to get covered that much, on the whole. For another, and I realise that this is a somewhat cynical attitude to take, as the evacuation took place in mid-1940, a year and a half before the events at Pearl Harbor dragged the US into the war, there’s no realistic way to get any American characters into the narrative, making it inherently less appealing to studio executives.
Fortunately, there are some directors out there who have considerable clout when it comes to getting their projects made, and one of those is Christopher Nolan, who has long wanted to do a movie set around the events at Dunkirk; with his impressive track record, he’s finally found himself in a position to get it made.
The setup for the movie is incredibly straightforward. Only a few months into the Second World War, 400,000 Allied troops find themselves trapped in a small pocket of land centred on the small port town of Dunkirk in northern France. With German land forces closing in on them, fighters and bombers strafing the beaches on which they huddle and U-Boats patrolling the channel between them and home, a desperate evacuation plan is put into motion to get as many out as possible before the Germans overrun the town. All the trapped soldiers could do was wait, desperately hoping that they would be able to find their way home.
Nolan’s always had a bit of a fascination with time in his movies, and Dunkirk is no exception. The movie follows three primary plot strands, conveniently divided into land, sea and air, which take place over different periods of time. The land segment, following the soldiers as they wait on the beach, takes place over a week. The sea-based section of the movie, which follows the crew of one of the “Little Ships”, an armada of small, civilian-owned boats that crossed the channel to help out, covers a day. The third and final part, which follows a pair of Spitfire pilots fighting off German planes threatening the evacuation, lasts no more than an hour. The film intercuts between the plotlines, which converge on (and ultimately pass) each other, in a mesmerising fashion as the movie moves towards its climax.
By war movies standards, Dunkirk makes a number of unusual choices. For example, it contains surprisingly few action sequences, preferring to focus on the soldiers and their need to get home. At no point does the movie cut to some war room with senior officers discussing how best to proceed. Probably most surprising, you almost never see any Germans – while their planes are obviously present throughout, there are no shots of the pilots, and the only footsoldiers who appear are intentionally kept vague. The result of these choices is a film that carries an intensity to it that rarely if ever lets up, amplified by Hans Zimmer’s strong score, which incorporates a ticking clock to nerve-rattling effect on several occasions.
The cast are pretty much top notch across the board. The land segments are led by a trio of soldiers, played by Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard and a surprisingly effective Harry Styles, and Kenneth Branagh’s Navy officer Commander Bolton, who has on-site command of the evacuation, with the added side effect that he gets most of the exposition. What there is of it, anyway – this is probably Nolan’s least talkative movie by some margin. The ever-watchable Mark Rylance gives a restrained performance as the protagonist of the sea-based segment, as Dawson, the civilian owner of the Moonstone, a small boat pressed into service to help. And the air segment is headlined by Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden as the fighter pilots who have to juggle dwindling fuel reserves with their need to protect those on the beaches, and the ships coming to save them.
The movie looks terrific, albeit with a very restrained and bleak palette, echoing the situation faced by its characters. There’s a strong sense of realism to the piece, no doubt enhanced by Nolan’s decision to shoot almost all the effects practically. This involved such actions as strapping IMAX cameras to modified aircraft to film the dogfight sequences; he’s also gone on record as saying that the movie uses absolutely no greenscreen at all. Quite a bit of the movie is also shot on the actual beach where the evacuation took place, and a number of the Little Ships that participated in the real events appear in the film as “themselves”, so to speak.
This is a movie about a specific moment in time and the effect that it had on those who were present for it. Nolan’s script largely dispenses with significant characterisation (backstories are almost completely absent) to focus on emotion – his characters are mostly depicted as unremarkable people in a remarkable situation, and he puts them through the wringer. It’s not even entirely clear whether we know the name of Fionn Whitehead’s character, despite him being the closest thing to the protagonist of the beach segments. He’s credited as “Tommy”, which obviously could be his name, but was also a generic slang term for a British soldier of the period. To a degree, though, that’s what Nolan seems to be aiming at – we don’t need to know much about these people to empathise with what they’re going through. It’s probably for this reason that all the characters are fictional, although a couple are at least in part based on real people involved in the evacuation – Commander Bolton is effectively Captain William Tennant, the real-life officer who coordinated the evacuation, and Dawson is recognisably close to Charles Lightoller who, as the former second officer of the RMS Titanic, clearly has an unfortunate knack for being present at historical events.
Dunkirk is about as unconventional a war movie as you’re likely to find, but is arguably all the better for it. It’s intense pretty much from the start and, as a result, is not always an easy watch, but rewards attention and certainly stays with you afterwards.