The Nazi’s are on the march across Europe. In the French city of Dunkirk, the Allies have been beaten back. The British and the French are trying to get out before they are overtaken by the Nazi armies.
The British are waiting for ships to arrive and bring the troops home. But they are facing regular air barrages from the Germans.
The Allies recruit boats from local small boat captains. They go on their way to try and retrieve the soldiers, and at the same time, a small group of British pilots try and provide the boats cover.
The film starts with breaking down the story into three parts. Earth (where the soldiers wait), sea (following a boat on it’s way to Dunkirk), and air (following three pilots). When you see the immense number of soldiers waiting for rescue, it becomes clear why Nolan made this choice. On the ground, we follow Tommy and Gibson, two very young soldiers. They are trying to get on a ship, and end up getting bumped to the front of the line when they risk their lives carrying a wounded soldier on a stretcher to a medical boat. But the soldiers face a horror as German planes bomb the ship and they can only watch as a ship full of wounded men sink into the sea.
We also get to see the concerns of the top officers who are trying to get their soldiers out. While they are making every effort, they are given some instructions that trouble them. Specifically, they are told to leave the French soldiers behind.
The sea focuses on a small vessel driven by Mr. Lawrence, Peter and George. Early on, they pick up the only survivor of another ship that has been sunk. This soldier (Cillian Murphy in a role credited only as “Shivering Soldier”) is terrified when he finds out they are going to Dunkirk. We never see exactly what he has witnessed, but he is adamant they return to Britain.
Air is focused on pilots Farrier and Collins. They are two of three planes trying to shoot down as many Germans as they can and save as many soldiers as possible.
On it’s face, Dunkirk seems like an odd choice of World War 2 Events, Most World War 2 films seek to focus on the great victories, especially against great odds. And, certainly, there is an aspect of that here. But Dunkirk was a moment in which the Allies faced a defeat and had gone into retreat.
However, it is clear to see why the British see this as such an important moment of their history. This is about finding hope and unity in moments of great defeat. It does not shy away from the cruelty of war, even though it is never as graphic as say, Saving Private Ryan. Nolan looks at the demons of war, but also sees where humanity can shine. We see men, both soldier and citizen uniting to survive. To get back alive and rebuild.
Nolan’s use of audio, both in sound and the music, are in top form here. The intensity is constantly building as music blends with the sounds of ships and planes. Much of Dunkirk was actually filmed on the beach of Dunkirk, adding to the reality and weight of the film.
Nolan has created a powerful epic that looks at the destruction, both physical and emotional, war will do…and sees where humanity can triumph in the face of that adversity. And he manages this looking at a moment when the good guys were facing a resounding defeat.