WARNING: The following contains spoilers.
It’s late May 1940. The German army has blitzed its away across Western Europe and has surrounded the Allied forces. The only pocket of Allied controlled territory is a small part of Northeastern France. Even with this pocket, it is a question of when–and not if–that territory, too, will fall to the Nazis.
That is how Dunkirk’s stage is set. We are introduced to five British soldiers walking the streets of France with a number of leaflets showing just how close the British army is to annihilation. Gunfire erupts, and four of the soldiers are killed by enemy gunfire. Only one, Tommy, makes it through to the evacuation beach at Dunkirk.
At the beach, we meet naval Commander Bolton and his army counterpart, Colonel Winnant, who are in charge of the pier that will evacuate as many British soldiers as possible. It is through their eyes we see the tremendous stress of ensuring the evacuation of the British army. Their high ranks connect us with the thoughts of the British government as it tries to save its army, while its ally falls.
We are also introduced to Dawson, his son Peter, and Peter’s friend George. They are part of the civilian fleet that has been activated to assist in the evacuation.
Finally, we see Tom Hardy who plays a nameless RAF Spitfire pilot. His character gives us the perspective of the air battle over the Channel and evacuation beaches.
We witness the remarkable evacuation through these characters; from the downed pilot’s struggle to break the plane’s glass canopy, to sunken ships with survivors swimming in the sea filled with burning ship fuel. We feel the intensity as the soldier frantically tries to open a watertight compartment on a torpedoed destroyer to save his fellow soldiers. We see a soldier’s determination as Dawson tells a shell-shocked survivor that, “there’s no running from this” as he steers towards France.
Christopher Nolan immerses the audience in every moment.
Back home in Britain, we see Tommy reading Churchill’s “We will fight on the beaches” speech in the newspaper. To check back in with reality, we see Hardy floating over the beach, having run out of fuel fighting off numerous Luftwaffe aircraft. After an intense struggle to get the landing gear down he lands his plane on the beach. He proceeds to destroy it to prevent it from falling into enemy hands, and then is swiftly captured. While it is not a happy moment it reminds the audience that Dunkirk represented the end of a massive failure, and that the war is still raging.
Dunkirk weaves the land, air, and sea portions of the evacuation together, which can be confusing at times, but once understood gives the audience a better picture of the event. The movie draws to an end as the civilian vessels arrive with the hardware of the Royal Navy being kept in reserve for, as Bolton says “the next battle”- the Battle of Britain.
Dunkirk does a great job showing the evacuation through the eyes of a few select characters whose names, if they have names, are hard to remember. As a result there is hardly any character development, but this is not a character-centered film. It is the action, not the dialogue that tells the story. If you want to see the full scale of the evacuation, Dunkirk will disappoint. If you want a look into what the typical soldier, airman, sailor, civilian or otherwise, went through, then Dunkirk hits a home run.
Dunkirk was both disaster and success. Many lives were lost, but the success at Dunkirk allowed the British time to regroup back home. They would depart again four years later and recross the English Channel to redeem what was lost at Dunkirk.