Dunkirk is a relentless experience. This isn’t a tale that showcases cheering triumph or superheroic feats of CG-laden derring-do. There are no blatant patriotic shots of ruffling flags scored to a grandiose symphony to be found here or true blue American boy scouts speechifying about a hope for a better tomorrow. Rather, it’s a film that violently pulls its audience onto the battlefield and all the consequences thereof.
Dunkirk’s is the retelling of the true World War II story of over 300,000 British and French soldiers hopelessly surrounded by the Germans at the port of Dunkirk, France. With little practical hope of an effective military evacuation, civilian boats and fisherman braved the German front to rescue as many soldiers as possible.
The film is told on three fronts: land, sea, and air. On land, we follow the desperate plight of a young British solider (Fionn Whitehead); on sea, the civilian rescue with a focus on a mariner (Mark Rylance) determined to save as many soldiers as possible; and, in the air, the dogfighting persistence of a royal air force pilot low on gas (Tom Hardy, in yet another masked role).
The biggest victories of Dunkirk are not found on the battlefield, to echo the infamous words of Winston Churchill. Heck, to call it a triumph of the human spirit would feel like a cheat. At its base, it’s a story of primal survival, scored to an almost literal ticking clock by Hans Zimmer that threatens to stop or explode at any given second. The film’s few moments of quiet are anything but. Within seconds, a momentary sigh of relief can quickly become a desperate stumble for life.
Those who have criticized Christopher Nolan, celebrated director as he is, for long runtimes, plodding, and indecipherable action will find little to complain about here. With taut execution (any more would have been unbearable by design), the film achieves a superb balance of pacing with expertly controlled beats that build up succinctly; mercifully, they are cut just short of cardiac arrest. Set pieces come and go at will but the film never loses its steady rise of tension or allows its sequence bridges to deflate what’s come before.
The biggest criticism that can be levied at Dunkirk is a lack of characterization. Characters are not fleshed out beyond the task at hand as they get swept up within the surrounding chaos. As bullets fly and ships are blown to pieces, the film doesn’t pause to relay their personal backstories because that isn’t its aim. Unlike Pearl Harbor which wasted two-thirds of its running time on a doomed love-triangle, Dunkirk doesn’t portray the story of a small group of cliché-ridden individuals who just happen to have the event playing in the background (and, once again unlike Pearl Harbor, the characters here are actually involved in the event rather than accidentally oversleeping in a car elsewhere!).
In fact, for the first twenty minutes of the film, there is little to no dialogue with the exception of futile shouts in the background. Outside of necessary expository scenes featuring Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy, the only actor afforded with any considerable amount of dialogue is Mark Rylance which, in context, makes sense as his subplot is the most civilian in the film. Primarily, the story of Dunkirk is, justifiably, the story of Dunkirk.
Overall, Dunkirk is a visceral plunge into the terror of war – claustrophobic, breathless, and unyielding in depiction. It’s not a film for everyone despite its PG-13 lack of gore. It doesn’t need to conspicuously linger on bloodied corpses, exploding limbs, or gratuitous blood splatter to promulgate the horrors at play. What worked for Saving Private Ryan (perhaps the last great World War II epic) isn’t necessary in the context of this story nor does it downplay its effect or consequences. With its exceptional implementation of practical visual effects, pounding sound design (the shrieking German planes are that of a sound found in the deepest night terrors), and unflinching momentum, Dunkirk is a gratifying dose of cinematic intensity in a movie landscape seemingly overrun by cartoon extravagance.