“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall never surrender” declares Churchill in his famous speech. By Land, By Sea, By Air… Christopher Nolan’s war epic ‘Dunkirk’ is a masterpiece. With minimal dialogue, the film plunges you into the chaos of war. It’s a stunning cinematic achievement. At one moment, you gasp for air as a ship sinks, feel your stomach drop in a dogfight and duck for cover when a dive bomber screams toward the beach. The historically accurate World War II drama chronicles the mass evacuation of 400,000 soldiers trapped on the Dunkirk beaches in May 1940. Nolan’s signature style of filmmaking expands space and time that delivers a nail-biting thriller. The visionary director who brought us ‘The Dark Knight,’ ‘Inception’ and ‘Interstellar’ has perfected the war movie genre by completely immersing the audience into the horrors of war.
The opening scenes waste no time sending us into battle. There is a group of soldiers walking down an empty street when they begin to run from sudden gunfire. Nolan expertly splits the narrative between land, sea and air. The first one deals with land. A young British soldier Tommy (Finn Whitehead) desperately scurries from the encroaching German forces. We never see them as they are simply referred to as the enemy. When Tommy arrives at the beach, it is an unforgettable spectacle of thousands of troops waiting to climb onboard too few ships. The land is the first storyline that follows Tommy’s determination to get back home alive which is literally just 23 miles across the English Channel. He befriends two other fresh-faced soldiers Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles). Styles who is best known for being a member of the boy band One Direction delivers a convincing performance.
The second narrative deals with the sea. Local fisherman Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) joins hundreds of English civilians who set off across the English Channel to rescue soldiers from France. His young teenage son Peter (Tom Glynn Carney) and his friend George (Barry Keoghan) tag along not knowing the dangers that await them on the other side of the English Channel. During their harrowing voyage, they pick up shivering soldier Cillian Murphy sitting atop a capsized torpedoed ship. We never get to know his name since he is too shell-shocked to speak. When the shivering soldier realizes they are headed in the direction of Dunkirk, Mr. Dawson calmly informs him that it is his civic duty to help in the rescue of our boys. It’s a superb performance by Rylance who symbolizes all the civilians who risked their lives to help with the evacuation of Dunkirk.
The third narrative takes place in the air. Royal Air Force fighter pilots led by Ferrier (Tom Hardy) fly sorties to pick off the Luftwaffe planes that are sinking rescue ships. Hardy once again dons a mask reminiscent of his character Bane from Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight Rises.’ He plays a brave pilot never knowing if he will have enough gasoline to make it back to England. The dogfights in the air are magnificently shot in 70mm film. The sights and sounds of battle are intensified by Hans Zimmer’s moody score. The breathtaking cinematography from Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar) creates a texture and beauty to each scene. Instead of focusing on individual characters, Nolan concentrates on the enormity of the evacuation involving multiple heroes as well as cowards. They were literally “sitting ducks” for the German bombers overhead. “We surround you,” reads a propaganda pamphlet dropped from the sky to taunt the British forces.
War is hell but a good war movie is entertaining. Nolan has executed a war drama that is destined to be remembered as one of the best in the genre. Nolan has taken the war drama to new heights with his fully immersive cinematic experience. Few movies have so successfully conveyed the fear and isolation of war as ‘Dunkirk.’ The ultimate fear of anyone facing war is dying alone. This film relentlessly pounds that realization home. When real Spitfires and Messerschimitts are in the heat of a dogfight over the English Channel, the audience is right there dodging the gunfire with the fighter pilots too. This is a film that puts us right into the heart of battle and makes ‘Dunkirk’ a must-see masterpiece.