To the uninitiated, “The Battle of Dunkirk was a military operation that took place in Dunkirk (Dunkerque), France, during the Second World War. The battle was fought between the Allies and Nazi Germany. As part of the Battle of France on the Western Front, the Battle of Dunkirk was the defence and evacuation of British and Allied forces in Europe from 26 May to 4 June 1940.” (Wikipedia)
At the end of the movie, after enduring the battle and war scenes for 106 minutes, there were so many things going in my mind after having witnessed the entire journey of evacuation through the eyes of a young soldier. I think I need to mention that it’s a not happy movie for sure. It’s a rather harrowing and tense journey through the battle.
Before I get into my review, it’s imperative to understand where Nolan was coming from for this film. He intended to shoot the film from three perspectives: Land, Sea and Air. He also intended to have as little dialogue as possible in the film. The movie is certainly not about characterization, plot development or giving out a message. However, what the movie does perfectly well is telling a story, and what a powerful one that is.
The blank screen starts off with a few words describing how hopeless the desperate the situation is at Dunkirk, where the soldiers are awaiting rescue. They are hoping for a miracle indeed.
I won’t get into the details of the events of the movie, but the basic premise of each segment is as follows:
The Mole (land perspective): One Week
The mole is, as mentioned in the dictionary, “a large solid structure on a shore serving as a pier, breakwater, or causeway.” Upon this mole are all the soldiers who are awaiting to be rescued. The movie opens up with young solider, Tommy, who is escaping the Germans and ends up at the beach safely after all his comrades have been killed. It is primarily through the eyes of Tommy that we get to witness the entire evacuation procedure. Bombs are dropped. Fighter planes shoot at soldiers. Ships sink. It’s chaotic yet Tommy fights through.
The Sea: One Day
The events on the sea cover one day of the evacuation. We follow one Mr. Dawson, a civilian, among many others, who take out their personal ships out on the sea to rescue the soldiers. Joining Mr. Dawson is his son, Peter, their hand George. They rescue a soldier along the way only to encounter some disturbances along the way.
The Air: One Hour
The entire plane sequences cover one hour of the Battle of Dunkirk. Three spitfire planes are on their way to provide support to the soldiers awaiting rescue. They encounter an enemy plane, with some unforeseen circumstances that lead to some dire results for all three pilots.
Nolan is known for creating a non-linear narrative in his movies, and he’s done the same thing in Dunkirk. It’s an interesting concept and one that works well for the movie. At times, it’s somewhat difficult to keep up with what’s happening because there’s so much going on, but it doesn’t leave you confused or lost. Full marks for carrying out such a difficult subject so effortlessly and with finesse.
Technically, Dunkirk is awesome. I won’t be surprised if it wins a plethora of awards for technical par excellence: cinematography (shot on Imax), sound, editing, stunts, just about everything was brilliant. Nolan used as less CGI as possible, and stuck to being as authentic as he could, with actually using large numbers of real people, using genuine airplanes for the Air sequence and using same boats that were used for the actual Dunkirk evacuation.
I have to stress that the sound was brilliant too. I could hear each sound of the bullet as it flew by me, the engine of the plane chugging as the fuel tank is damaged and the sighing of a soldier breathing his last. For this purpose, the movie needs to be seen at the cinema to have a completely immersive experience.
Along with this, Hans Zimmer needs to be given a huge round of applause for creating such an engaging soundtrack—it lifts and complements the film like a hand fits a glove super comfortably.
Dunkirk is a journey through a battle. It will drag you right into the battle and won’t leave you right until the end. It will you on to the sea, underwater as a torpedo hits them, above the air as the pilot dodges the enemy back right on to the ground as soldiers rush to be rescued.
Having said that, the only issue I had with Dunkirk was the disconnection with the characters and the people. By the end of the movie, I forgot about the people. I didn’t really care who lived and who died. But then I realized the movie wasn’t really about the people, it was about this war. It was about experiencing the war. It was about being right in the middle of the horrors of being shot and killed. It was about experiencing the sheer terror of trying to escape and be rescued.
Another slight issue I had (and it could be just me) with the movie was how safe and clean it was (perhaps to retain the PG-13 and not get the dreaded 18 rating). It didn’t have any of the graphic scenes that Saving Private Ryan did. There’s not much blood and gore. I felt that some moments of graphic scenes would have added some realism to the movie.
Nolan has gone on to say ““All of my big blockbuster films have been PG-13. It’s a rating I feel comfortable working with totally. Dunkirk is not a war film. It’s a survival story and first and foremost a suspense film. So while there is a high level of intensity to it, it does not necessarily concern itself with the bloody aspects of combat, which have been so well done in so many films. We were really trying to take a different approach and achieve intensity in a different way. I would really like lots of different types of people to get something out of the experience.”
An almost, near perfect movie that captures the horrors of the battle at Dunkirk, Nolan has done a fine job of portraying the experience on screen. The disconnection between the audience and the character may be of concern to some, but it’s important to know the movie is not about that, but rather the experience of being in the battle that will take you on a terse and scary journey.
4.5 out of 5