From the first frame of “Dunkirk”, the action doesn’t stop until the film’s conclusion. Just under two hours long, the film is a breathtaking war story that never lets its foot off the gas pedal.
400,000 soldiers are stranded off the coast of France in Dunkirk, their home of England visible just over the channel, but they can’t get there. German planes are picking them off on flybys and the enemy army is steadily advancing in on them. The film follows three sets of characters; one set on land, led by young Tommy (Fion Whitehead) trying to survive on the beach, one in the air, led by Farrier (Tom Hardy) trying to protect the troops on the ground from German aircraft, and one coming in from the sea, a commercial yacht piloted by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), tasked with trying to rescue the troops. Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) on the beach overlooks the entire operation with despair and yet a slim ray of hope; perhaps rescue will come from home.
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, the film is a tale of tension rather than carnage. It is rated PG-13 so the blood and massacre of other war films is not as omnipresent or visual. This is rather a story of avoiding that horror.
Time plays a central element in the narrative, always seemingly ticking in the background. The time of the incoming tide, characters constantly checking their watches, Farrier’s declining fuel supply in his fighter jet; all tick by over the course of the story. This ratchets up the tension as we clock down to the possible annihilation of our heroes.
The film really puts you in the situation. Through the wide and precise cinematography and deafening sound (it may be the loudest movie I’ve ever seen), the war and dread come to life. Everything in the film appears shockingly real. Though we know there are visual effects, they are hard to point out in comparison to so many other films who blatantly use CGI, but in a way that points to the effect being man made.
The story is relatively simple, and there are seemingly barely 50 lines of dialogue in the whole film. It is really more about story told through action, and the film keeps going at full-speed the entire time, barely letting the audience catch their breath. This is both well-done and a bit overdone.
The film is not so much about war, but about determination, representative of the defiant British spirit. It is a story of perseverance in the face of slim odds, told in grand yet intimate scale. The three different storylines intersect at the conclusion in a grand rescue that gives meaning to Winston Churchill’s famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech.