Dunkirk (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2017) – During the second World War, the Allies successfully managed an extraordinary evacuation of over 300,000 troops against all odds.
Visually and aurally spectacular, Dunkirk both documents the resolve of the Allied in dire times, and presents the futility of war in harrowing honesty.
Heroes never set out to be heroes. They do what they believe is right, and expect nothing in return. Some die needlessly, others sacrifice without choice. Most leave no names and stories behind. Those who survive, are plagued with guilt over those who did not.
Dunkirk depicts this ruthless reality of war in its powerful tribute to many forgotten men and deeds in history. In a daring move, writer-director Christopher Nolan dilutes character backstories, subverting expectations of the genre. Yet such minimal dramatisation feels true to the crowd of 300,000 trapped during the Battle of Dunkirk.
After all, these young men are in many ways faceless on the battlefield. Their lives come to a standstill in wartime, when they lose their self-identity and fight in the name of their country. Bound to the present moment, we are made to realise how survival is all that matters, no matter whose.
Sound assaults full-on, as unflinching as the tumult of true warfare. Sudden skirmishes puts one on the edge, alternating between vigilance and shock. Hans Zimmer’s pulsating score accompanies, and the aural impact is matched with powerful imagery. Shot in 70mm IMAX, Dunkirk is an immersive cinematic experience, visually arresting and structurally ambitious.
Three unfolding arcs each comes of a faction that contributed to the success of this necessary evacuation. As with his previous works Memento and Inception, Nolan ensures the sum of its parts turn out coherent and compelling at every turn.
Land follows a trio of young, inexperienced soldiers, who know little about each other beyond their uniforms. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and Alex (Harry Styles) are thrown in grey circumstances, where survival and morality may very well be independent of the other.
Air centres on Farrier and Collins (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden), two pilots who valiantly swerve past relentless bullets and destroy enemy planes to their last drop of fuel. Unseen in the skies and often blamed for their perceived absence, only they themselves are privy to their heroics.
Water comes in the form of the Navy, where Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) face difficult decisions at the front line but make the best of them. Civilians like Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and friend George (Barry Keoghan) forge forth in their yachts, rescuing men stranded in the treacherous seas.
Each slightest second of all three threads is purposeful in sustaining claustrophobic suspense, where home is in sight yet out of reach. There is no sole mission to root for, or the heroism of a single brave man.
Rather, these strangers have come together to keep each other alive, whether in the name of patriotism or simply, humanity. The war is depicted as how it truly is, like the memorable tracking shot of Dunkirk in Atonement – chaotic bedlam without a true point of focus.
An incredible ensemble cast ensures that strong emotions are not lost in the turmoil. Few words are needed for them to convey their trauma, regret, and grief. Aneurin Barnard’s selfless sacrifices, Cillian Murphy’s shell-shocked state, and Mark Rylance’s unwavering faith come through, subtle in portrayal but never diminished in impact.
Never for a second does the danger cease. Every moment of calm ends in a disastrous loss of life, be it in air bombings or shipwrecks. But history shows their way out of this despair. The eventual end celebrates the extraordinary feat of these men’s fortitude. Still, the hollowness of this temporary victory is felt in a powerful exchange:
“All we did was survive.”
“That is enough.”
The ostensible consolation is bleak in its implications. As we know it, many of these soldiers are marching towards the inevitable, larger war ahead. This evocative end warns of the futility of warfare, irreversible in its unnecessary devastation.