Dunkirk instantly enters the pantheon of great war films, alongside Das Boot, Full Metal Jacket, Saving Private Ryan, and The Final Countdown. Okay, so maybe that last one doesn’t count as “great” and it’s pretty much a 50/50 split between war and sci-fi, but I still hold it in extremely high esteem. War is hell no matter what time portal you cruise through, I suppose.
Christopher Nolan, who can seemingly do no wrong when it comes to large-scale mayhem paired with smaller scenes and subplots rife with storm-cloud emotions, tackles one of World War II’s legendary retreats. In late May of 1940 – before the U.S. entered the war – Hitler’s army and Luftwaffe blitzkrieged their way across Belgium and France in a matter of days with the end result being some 350,000 British, French, Belgian, and Canadian troops trapped on the beach at Dunkirk, France, just miles and a stormy English Channel away from home and salvation. Churchill, rightly foreseeing the upcoming Battle of Britain, held much of the Royal Navy and Air Force in check, severely limiting the chances of rescue for the allies stuck on the beach. (He hoped to rescue only 35,000-40,000 men.) Instead, in a genuinely patriotic move, a civilian armada of pleasure craft and fishing boats sailed off into the rough seas to save as many of their own as they could. Along with British destroyers, they plucked almost 340,000 soldiers from the French coast, even as German U-boats sunk surrounding vessels and heroic RAF Spitfires engaged German Heinkels and Messerschmitts in that air above. After the evacuation, Churchill would deliver his legendary rallying cry, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and on the streets … we will never surrender,” while also adding that “wars are not won by evacuations.”
That’s the historical context. Nolan, seamlessly weaving together several disparate stories at once, condenses history to its sheer essence: terrified troops lined up in columns awaiting rescue while being strafed from the clouds; a RAF pilot (Hardy) doing his nail-gnawing best to provide air cover even as his plane runs perilously low on fuel; a Mr. Dawson (Rylance, brilliant), steering his yacht into the channel alongside his son and a classmate friend; and British Commander Bolton (Branagh) standing on the Dunkirk “mole” (pier) waiting to get his men to safety. And then there’s the every-soldier, Tommy (Whitehead), who acts as the audience’s main POV. The performances are blisteringly bang-on right across the board.Dunkirk is nothing if not a sustained effort on the part of the entire cast and crew to turn the audience’s knuckles permanently white. Nolan maintains gut-wrenching suspense throughout by cross-cutting between the various characters and their plights. I’d go so far to say that Dunkirk could easily serve as its own master class in the art of film editing. Add to that an absolutely terrifyingly discordant score from Hans Zimmer and the result is, well, a bona fide classic. Well done, sir, well done.
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