It’s surprising that the evacuation of Dunkirk has not been the subject of a film prior to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. It’s been touched on in other films, such as Atonement, but it’s never been the focus. Part of the problem is the story doesn’t fit the “Rah-rah, we’re gonna win” mentality of most World War II films. Even with the few made during the war years that dealt with defeats, such as They Were Expendable, Bataan, and Wake Island, were designed to motivate because of the sacrifice of the characters. The greatest US defeat, Pearl Harbor, has been filmed twice for the big screen, first in the interesting but uneven Tora Tora Tora, and then in Michael Bay’s over-stuffed mish mash Pearl Harbor. In each, the loss becomes the starting point for winning. Tora Tora Tora ends with Admiral Yamamoto’s quote that he feared all they’d done was awaken the slumbering giant. Bay extends his movie to include the Dewey raid on Tokyo months after Pearl Harbor, though the story of that raid was done better in 30 Seconds Over Tokyo.
Dunkirk doesn’t fit neatly into that narrative. The British army was swept back to the ocean’s edge by the German blitzkrieg, and suffered around 100,000 casualties or troops captured. Yet the British pulled off the astonishing achievement of rescuing over 300,000 troops off the beach. Even greater, the salvation of the Army was pulled off by private citizens who answered the call to pilot their small ships across the treacherous English Channel. While it went the other way, it was an accomplishment on par with D-Day, and in fact there likely wouldn’t have been a D-Day without Dunkirk. What shaped up to be an inglorious defeat that arguably would have led to a German invasion of Great Britain, was instead turned into a miracle.
Nolan has created a lean feature with a running time of an hour and forty-six minutes, and like his first success, Memento, it plays with time. He focuses on three stories that intertwine, even though one plays out over the course of a week, the second in a day, and the third in an hour. Eventually, all the stories come together.
The movie begins with the week-long story of the trapped soldiers. A group of British stragglers walks through the streets of Dunkirk as leaflets drop from the sky, proclaiming them surrounded. Then German snipers open up. One of the group, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) makes it over a gate and climbs to the next street where he reaches the French defensive lines. From there he wanders down to the beach, a wide expanse filled with English soldiers. German dive bombers regularly scream down upon the troops and attack transports that attempt to rescue the soldiers. Tommy meets Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and wordlessly forms a team with him. The officers in charge on the beach, Naval Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Army Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy), fear they can’t even save a tenth of the troops.
In England, the day comes to activate a plan to mobilize small pleasure boats to sail to France. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) loads stacks of life preservers onto his cabin cruiser with the help of his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and another local lad, George (Barry Keoghan). At the last moment, George jumps on board to accompany the Dawsons, saying he can be of help. What they’re heading toward is soon brought home when they come upon the stern of a sunken ship bobbing in the water with a shivering soldier (Cillian Murphy) sitting alone on it.
In the air, a flight of three Spitfires head to Dunkirk where they’ll only have enough petrol left in their tanks to fight for one hour. One soon becomes the victim of a German fighter, but the other two pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), try to provide air cover for the ships rescuing the soldiers.
Nolan has meticulously researched the battle and the rescue operation, and while he purposefully didn’t seek to reproduce photographic images of the battle, he gets the details right. It helped that a majority of the movie was filmed on the actual Dunkirk beach. Nolan also used Spitfires left from the Battle of Britain in the aerial sequences, and a number of the small boats rescuing the soldiers in the movie were part of the evacuation 77 years ago.
Nolan also cast the movie to match the soldiers pictured from those days. Fionn Whitehead was eighteen years old when the film was shot and hadn’t been in front of a movie camera before. He gives an exceptional performance with very little dialog; Nolan wanted images to tell the story more than words. In the same way, Mark Rylance’s quiet heroism stands in for all those who answered the call to help. He’s straightforward without pretentiousness, but he also knows a compassionate lie can show mercy.
I read a story today of a 97-year-old veteran of the battle who saw the film at a theater near his home in Canada. He attended wearing a jacket and tie, mirroring Mark Rylance’s costume in the film. He wore his Army beret, and his medals from the war were pinned to his jacket. The veteran had tears in his eyes after the film. “It was like I was there again…I could see my old friends again.”
That’s the best endorsement a historical film could ask for.