In a movie landscape oversaturated with sequels, reboots, and remakes, Christopher Nolan is one of the few directors in Hollywood who consistently delivers high-quality original storytelling to his audiences — and his latest film “Dunkirk” (2017) is no exception. With a star-studded cast of Oscar winners and talented newcomers, impeccable craftsmanship, and an inspiring narrative based on historical events, “Dunkirk” is one of the greatest war films in recent memory.
Set in the summer of 1940 during World War II, “Dunkirk” recounts the incredible military operation known as Operation Dynamo. After being driven to the shores by German forces in what Prime Minister Winston Churchill called a “colossal military disaster,” thousands of British and French soldiers were left stranded on the beaches of northern France. As enemy forces enclosed in on them, the Allied soldiers seemed to face two choices: surrender or annihilation. Yet thanks to the extraordinary heroism of a civilian-led fleet, over 330,000 Allied troops were successfully rescued.
This larger-than-life event is told through nonlinear storytelling that follows the soldiers’ evacuation at Dunkirk, the civilians’ journey across the war zone, and the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) dogfights above. The film opens as a young British private called Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and his comrades Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles) attempt to evacuate the beach by any means necessary. The wartime conditions are brutal, and the atmosphere is intense with the enemy lurking at every corner. The faces of the German enemy are never shown on screen, but their menacing presence is felt throughout the movie by the Allied soldiers and viewers alike.
“Dunkirk” is as much a story about the soldiers of Dunkirk as it is the civilians who saved them. The film's key civilian figures include a humble sailor named Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his teenage son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and their young hand George (Barry Keoghan). As they cross the English Channel on their small boat, “Moonshine,” they rescue countless Allied troops along the way. Through the civilian perspective, Nolan underscores the devastating effects of total war as well as the importance of ordinary acts of bravery. The evacuation of Dunkirk — now termed by some the Miracle of Dunkirk — was made possible by the noble actions of everyday civilians. This message is driven home at the end of the film when it is revealed that Mr. Dawson’s eldest son died within the first few weeks of the war, a stark reminder of how every British family had something or someone at stake.
Without a doubt, one of the most entertaining elements of “Dunkirk” is the dogfights between RAF fighter pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) and the German Luftwaffe. Though their faces are covered by pilot helmets for a majority of the film, the camaraderie between Farrier and Collins is crystal clear — a testament to Hardy and Lowden’s impressive acting abilities. These riveting aerial action sequences, along with Nolan’s gorgeous shots of the sky and sea create an immersive experience for all members of the audience.
Superb craftsmanship behind the camera also makes “Dunkirk” a major technical feat. Shot on location with 70 mm IMAX film, this is a movie that must be seen on the largest screen possible. Nolan trades computer-generated imagery (CGI) for brutal realism by employing practical effects whenever possible and using authentic Spitfire fighter planes provided by the Imperial War Museum in Duxford. This is aided by Richard King’s sound design, perhaps the best of any Nolan film. He captures the intensity of battle with such ferocity that it leaves the audience on the edge of their seats. “Dunkirk” also displays some of composer Hans Zimmer’s finest work. Like King, Zimmer is a frequent collaborator of Nolan — all three men having worked on “The Dark Knight” (2008) and “Inception” (2010) in the past. Throughout “Dunkirk,” Zimmer meticulously manipulates sound, similar to how Nolan manipulates time through the nonlinear story structure. During action scenes, Zimmer utilizes the shepard-risset glissando to generate nauseating feelings of suspense. The movie’s conclusion features an adaption of the Enigma Variations called Variation 15, paying homage to the British composer Edward Elgar. Elgar’s Enigma Variations are one of Britain’s most beloved musical pieces and are performed annually at memorials for fallen soldiers. In Variation 15, Zimmer's swelling orchestra of brass and strings creates an overwhelming sensation of catharsis before the screen cuts to black.
Despite its widespread critical acclaim, one common criticism of the movie has been its lack of characterization. However, this is not a result of poor writing; on the contrary, it seems that this was a deliberate artistic choice made by Nolan. “Dunkirk” is a spectacle above all else. It depicts a specific moment in time, one that is greater than the sum of its characters. Though the film’s marketing centers around the character of Tommy, “Dunkirk” has no one true protagonist. “Dunkirk” is a narrative about the widespread suffering and sacrifice that comes with war, and it implicitly shows its viewers the shades of grey in modern warfare. The screenplay’s restrained dialogue and absence of feel-good character moments do not detract from the film; instead, they enhance its realism and scope.
Even though it is only 106 minutes in runtime, “Dunkirk” highlights several important themes with understated sophistication, such as survival, trauma, sacrifice, and prejudice. The movie acutely focuses on the random nature of survival, as seen through the character of Alex. Following the evacuation, Alex returns home to England where his survivor's guilt is clearly evident as he hangs his head low in shame. When a stranger thanks him for his service, Alex flinches before responding “All we did is survive.” Much to his surprise, the stranger simply replies “That’s enough,” showing him gratitude, not malice.
“Dunkirk” also touches on another form of trauma: post-traumatic stress disorder. During a skirmish between Mr. Dawson and a traumatized unnamed soldier (Cillian Murphy), the soldier accidentally fatally injures the young boy George in his confusion. This scene exemplifies the psychological distress of war and the valiant sacrifices of civilians like George.
The film also subtly addresses the concept of xenophobia. After Tommy, Gibson, and Alex are cornered by German troops, Alex learns that Gibson is French and pressures him to sacrifice himself for the rest of the British soldiers, implying that British lives are more valuable than French ones. Even as allies, xenophobic sentiment, amplified by the extreme conditions of war, prevails. Nonetheless, the film ends on a more optimistic note as displayed by the actions of British Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh). While hundreds of civilian vessels pour into Dunkirk to aid the British soldiers, Bolton makes the difficult yet compassionate choice to remain until the French soldiers can be safely evacuated too. Despite the chaos and horrors of war, hope is not lost, morality is not dead, and empathy is not forgotten.
The USG Movies program, sponsored by Undergraduate Student Government, typically brings films to the Princeton Garden Theatre for free student viewing. The program has adapted to the virtual semester by unlocking a new movie and discussion topic each Thursday via a Canvas site and by hosting a discussion of the week’s movie each Saturday at 9 p.m. ET. All films can be streamed for free by University students.