A handful of young British soldiers walk the eerily quiet and empty streets of Dunkirk, France. Though the war rages on, this seems to be a rare moment of peace. Flyers rain from somewhere in the sky, obviously from the enemy. A red "X" marks Dunkirk: arrows point at it, all saying "WE SURROUND YOU." A grave message, but they don't seem to be here. The soldiers continue their walk--suddenly, ear-shattering gunfire surrounds them, bouncing off walls and striking them. Only one manages to make it back to the Allied barracks.
So begins the visceral one-hundred minutes of Dunkirk.
Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk presents the Dunkirk Evacuations through multiple perspectives: a group of British soliders trying to escape the beaches and the British military leaders overseeing the evacuations over the course of a week; a civilian fisherman and his sons as they sail to Dunkirk to rescue the soldiers on the last day of the evacuations, and; the final hour through the eyes of two British Air Force pilots. The narratives interweave throughout the film; not everything happens at the same time. Rather, they are edited together through a ceaseless score by Hans Zimmer and shared emotional beats until they come together in the film's last minutes.
This film is very much an experiential type of cinema. The sound design ensures that we feel the bullets hit helmets, that we are overwhelmed by the piercing cries of enemy fighter planes, and that we know the emotions of young men as bombs detonate around them. The extensive use of stunts and practical destruction make sure we are not taken out of these moments. In fact, Dunkirk is more of a silent film at times, where the dialogue is minimal and mostly unimportant. The characters say things, but it's rarely used to motivate the plot. I think of an oft-referenced quote by Alfred Hitchcock: "If it's a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on." As far as dialogue is concerned, I would say this could apply to Dunkirk, but I do stress, reader, that the dialogue is not without purpose.
As a result of the emphasis on experience in this film, though, some may be disappointed that we don't learn all that much about these characters. By now in my reviews, I have usually listed some cast members with their character names, but aside from a handful, I can't very well remember their names and I couldn't tell you the background of most of the characters, but I could tell you what happens to them in these moments.
And perhaps that was a more powerful choice.
At times the film dragged as the operation continued, but it must have dragged for them, too. Sometimes the nonlinearity was disorienting, but the events must have been for them, too. I didn't know all that happened to the 300,000+ souls involved, but do I think they did, too?
The film is only a snapshot of World War II. For example, we never see the faces of the Axis Powers: if they are on screen at all, it is their silhouettes surrounding a hero or they are hidden in a plane, in a building, or a U-Boat. In this vein, too, the people we follow are mostly British. To emphasize the fragmentary quality of his narrative, Nolan brilliantly included one last frame after the score, which had been connecting the action non-stop to this point, ceased. The Dunkirk Evacuations were over; the war was not. These characters--these heroes from land, air, and sea, civilian and soldier--were not done with their duties after these events.
Some may become prisoners of war. Some may live until the end of the war, get married, and have children. Some of them may mourn their lost. Some may never recover though they survived. We do not know, but this was not what Nolan wanted to show us. Perhaps, he thought, that would distract us from the one-hundred minutes we had experienced. I cannot say whether he was right or wrong, but I can say that it works. I was moved by the end, even though I had some qualms. With the experience I had in the moment and the feelings I had afterwards, I must conclude that Nolan made a effective use of motion pictures.