Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a radical experiment that tells the story of a war without the usual elements of blood and gore.
Dunkirk is a story of the early days of World War II when over 400,000 Allied soldiers are trapped by Nazi forces savagely closing in on them from all sides.
Stranded on a beach in Dunkirk, France, the movie focuses on the rescue efforts by the British and Allied troops to get the boys back home across the English Channel.
It’s like Saving Private Ryan, only with a few hundred thousand Ryans and a lot less backstory.
Nolan downsizes on dialogue and switches up the conventional narrative structure, as usual, to weave a movie that’s wordlessly efficient in its non-linear time-jumbled fashion.
Weaving non-linear storylines is a skill he’s already executed with masterful precision in his breakout Memento, but Nolan is in even rarer form here.
The narration of Dunkirk is split into three different sequences.
The first sequence, spanning one week, takes place on the beach where the movie is shown from the perspective of Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young British private, who separately runs into fellow soldiers, Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles), and together try different schemes to get off the beach before they become casualties of the bombs dropping from the sky.
The second sequence covers only a day, with British mariner, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) sailing with two teenagers across the Channel in his private boat to rescue as many soldiers as possible from Dunkirk.
The third sequence spans only an hour, and it follows three RAF Spitfire pilots who provide air support to the Dunkirk troops down below by keeping the skies clear of enemy bombers.
Nolan is at his puppet-master best here as he strings between these three plot threads, juggling three different time periods across the land (the beach), water (boats and ships), and air (Spitfire aircrafts), to narrate a very emotionally intimate story.
Nolan cleverly intercuts these versions of the same story to enrich one another so much so that when they all come together in the end, the audience is overwhelmed by the incisive cohesion.
In a bold departure from war movie norm, Nolan disregards building up the story of the actual war and the politics and sentiments behind it to tell what is simply a survival story.
Devoid of buildup other than a few lines of exposition at the beginning of the movie, Nolan drops the audience squarely into the middle of the crisis much like most of these desperate young men were.
Rather than tell this evocative story with bloody combat, spilling guts and reckless mayhem, Nolan delivers Dunkirk with the sort of bloodless grand spectacle that not many can quite pull off.
The movie’s intensity is not built by explicit graphics that’ll shock and assault the senses of the audience, but based on smart pacing that dares the audience to try and keep up.
Nolan injects the audience with feelings of fear and desperation by focusing on how the characters experience war and try to stay alive through the destruction that it wreaks.
Much of this is achieved with little aid from actual dialogue between the characters. In fact, in the first 30 minutes of the movie, there’s barely any lines of dialogue spoken between the characters on the beach.
Scenes of weary soldiers packed together, sometimes in tight spaces while they hope they don’t get killed, is stirring enough that no amount of words can serve as worthy substitutes.
To tell a compact story, Nolan dances around the three events, cutting from the peril of one timeline to the relief or greater peril of another.
Much of the movie’s feelings are amplified by its soulful music score that beats in tandem with the boiling chaos that’s playing out on the screen.
Despite framing the narratives around the perspectives of a handful of people, Dunkirk is not the story of a single person’s struggles for survival, but that of thousands.
It does not tell a specific story of grandiose heroism, as is the staple of war movies, but a simple story of human survival.
Dunkirk offers a sincere exploration of the human spirit, with themes of bravery and self-sacrifice littering all three narrative threads that makes all the dispiriting emotion at the end of the movie feel thoroughly earned.
In the end, no war is won, but survival gets a subdued victorious cheer.