Dunkirk: Surviving the Beach

AT THE POINT OF CRISIS, AT THE POINT OF ANNIHILATION, SURVIVAL IS VICTORY. 

About 25 years ago, Christopher Nolan and his wife Emma Thomas were crossing the English Channel together with a friend. They were in a small sailing yacht headed for the northeastern French town of Dunkirk, but what initially looked like a pleasant journey turned into a nightmare because of the weather. The 1940 evacuation of over 300,000 British soldiers from Dunkirk has become a legendary historical event in the nation’s history, and Nolan realized that he wanted to make a movie about it. But at that point, he hadn’t even made Memento (2001) and he knew that he needed serious Hollywood money to do a story like that justice.

In the early summer of 1940, the war is going very well for Nazi Germany. After the invasion of France, Belgium and the Netherlands, Allied troops have been pushed back to the beaches of northern France. In Dunkirk, 400,000 soldiers are waiting to be evacuated. Facing German firepower from one side, they’re also routinely strafed and bombed by Luftwaffe planes. Up in the skies over the Channel, RAF pilots do their best to stop the German planes; even though one of the pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy), gets his fuel gauge destroyed, he’s intent on remaining in the fight for as long as he can.

At the same time, war veteran Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter and another boy are crossing the Channel in a small boat as part of a civilian flotilla racing to take part in the evacuation…

Nolan’s first reality-based film
Finally, after three Batman movies, a detour into space (Interstellar) and a film where he twisted time and space (Inception), Nolan was ready for his first reality-based epic – and it became his shortest film yet! Impressive, for a war movie that tells the story of Dunkirk from three different perspectives. Nolan has received an overwhelming amount of praise for this one, but my feelings ran hot and cold. I am certainly an admirer of Nolan as a filmmaker, but he has a tendency to focus primarily on technical aspects rather than storytelling; there’s a slight chill to his attitude.

In this case, Nolan was solely interested in giving us the experience of what it must have been like to be one of those soldiers on the beach, one of those RAF pilots, one of those people in the civilian flotilla. No other context. He certainly does that, conveying the claustrophobic feel of being trapped on that beach, having nowhere to run when the Luftwaffe comes after you. A remarkable feat in a film where cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema also gives us breathtaking 70-millimeter views of the blue-gray skies and waters where all the action takes place. There’s pressing tension right from the start, when we see one of the soldiers (Fionn Whitehead) run for his life through Dunkirk’s gardens, bullets whizzing.

The script was written with an almost mathematical eye for how to make music and sound design work in harmony to achieve one effect only – have you at the edge of your seat. Hans Zimmer even wrote his score with a constantly ticking clock as accompaniment.

A lot of money doesn’t guarantee a great movie. This account of the events at Dunkirk is so successful not because of its budget but Nolan’s talents as a filmmaker. And even if he seems at times to care more about the technicalities of the evacuation, themes like courage, cowardice and humanity come across clearly. Rylance stands out in the cast; the most emotional drama takes place on his boat. But the surprising addition of One Direction star Harry Styles also pays off; he’s good as the aggressive young soldier who considers having to be rescued from the Germans a disgrace. 

Dunkirk 2017-U.S.-Britain-The Netherlands-France. 106 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Cinematography: Hoyte Van Hoytema. Music: Hans Zimmer. Editing: Lee Smith. Cast: Tom Hardy (Farrier), Mark Rylance (Dawson), Fionn Whitehead (Tommy), Cillian Murphy, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles… Kenneth Branagh. Voice of Michael Caine.

Trivia: The evacuation was also depicted in Dunkirk (1958) and Weekend at Dunkirk (1964).

Oscars: Best Film Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing. BAFTA: Best Sound.

Last word: “I think the visual nature of the storytelling is something I’m excited about. It’s something I value in films and film history; I’m an incredible lover of silent films. The challenge of taking on what I call a present-tense narrative – that is to say, we don’t learn a lot about the people we’re experiencing this with. We really just try to live in the moment and experience it with them, and look through their eyes. That was the challenge of the film, and as it is shaping up I think that, for me, is the thing that I challenged myself the most with and I am excited about that.” (Nolan, Collider)

 

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