This is not a story that requires a lot of exposition; it’s enough to simply watch the horror play out on the actors' faces as time runs down.
At first, I struggled with the proper way to wax poetic about director Christopher Nolan’s new film, Dunkirk. Should I call it a master class in mounting apprehension? Perhaps a tour de force in high tension would be better? Fortunately, a fellow moviegoer came to my rescue. As the lights came up, the beleaguered fellow breathed a sigh of relief and proclaimed to whomever would listen how, finally, after two hours of overwhelming anxiety, he was at last able to unclench his butt cheeks. That, dear readers, is as fine a description of Dunkirk as any. It is by far the best butt-clenching movie of the year.
At the end of May 1940, following a disastrous defeat at the hands of German forces, Allied troops found themselves stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, France. Military ships attempting to evacuate the soldiers became easy targets for German bombers, and it appeared all was hopeless. Faced with the potential loss of a sizable portion of its military, Great Britain launched Operation Dynamo. This involved the conscripting of hundreds of civilian boats, many of them manned by non-military personnel, to be used in a last-ditch effort to rescue as many soldiers as possible.
Christopher Nolan being Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk does not relate this bit of history in a straightforward manner. Rather, it follows three storylines, each with its own unique timeframe. On the beach among the teaming hordes waiting in queue, we find Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young British soldier who will try anything and everything to secure passage home. Over the course of a week, we see him and a few other stragglers continuously be thwarted in their attempts to escape.
The second story involves the day-long journey of a civilian boat as it makes its way across the English Channel as part of the rescue effort. In danger of being torpedoed or bombed at any moment, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his crew of two young teenagers resolutely push forward, despite the opposition of a shell-shocked soldier they have pulled from the waves.
Finally, there is a small squadron of British airmen led by Farrier (Tom Hardy), who in the final hour of the rescue have the unenviable task of warding off as many German bombers as they can before their own gas runs out.
Much like Apollo 13, the tale of Dunkirk has an ending set in stone by history. It takes only a quick trip to Google to find out exactly how Operation Dynamo ended and how many British soldiers eventually escaped the beach and made it back home. But like Apollo 13 before it, Dunkirk uses every storytelling technique at its disposal to wring copious amounts of tension from the situation, despite its known outcome.
Much of the success of the film lies with its sound. From the first moments of the movie, Hans Zimmer’s score includes a click-track simulating the ticking of a clock. Handled less expertly, it’s a device that could quickly become annoying. As it plays out in the film, however, the nearly ever-present tick-tocking is a constant reminder of how little time every person on the screen has left. To this is added what is sure to be Oscar-nominated sound design. Never have ships and planes sounded as rickety and unsecure as the vessels in Dunkirk.
Finally, in what would appear to be counter-intuitive when talking about sound, there is the sparseness of dialog in the film. War of the Planet of the Apes probably had more talking in it than Dunkirk, and most of the characters in that film couldn’t even speak. And yet, the relative lack of dialog in Dunkirk allows the audience to become engrossed in the environment of the movie rather than in conversations. In the end, this is not a story that requires a lot of exposition; it’s enough to simply watch the horror play out on the actors’ faces as time runs down.
And yet, despite all of the butt-clenching suspense, there is also hope and heroism on display in Dunkirk. It’s to be found in Tommy’s charitable actions towards a brother-in-arms, in Dawson’s compassionate response to the actions of the shell-shocked soldier in his care, and in Farrell’s fateful decision to see his mission to its end no matter the outcome. As Winston Churchill himself noted, while the evacuation of Dunkirk could not be considered anything but a defeat in terms of battle, there were still victories of a sort to be found in the individual stories of perseverance, charity, and self-sacrifice. Battles end as they may, but such virtues will always transcend a checkmark in the win or loss column.
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