Christopher Nolan’s intimate World War II epic Dunkirk relates the evacuation of French, British, Belgian and Dutch soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France. The evacuation took place from May 26 to June 4, 1940, though the film appears to condense events into a shorter time frame.
Dunkirk tells its story using three different narratives. In one of them, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young British soldier, escapes an attack by the Germans and makes it to the beach where he meets another soldier (Aneurin Barnard). Together, they try to get on a boat leaving Dunkirk. The second story follows a man (Mark Rylance who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 2015 for Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies), his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and their teenage assistant (Barry Keoghan) as they use their private boat to help the Navy. The third is about two pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) trying to provide air support for troops on the shore.
At the beginning of this review, I called Dunkirk both intimate and an epic, which seem to be contradictory terms. The film is epic because of its size, but intimate due to its scope. Even though it only focuses on a handful of people, it is clear that there are many more soldiers in similar positions.
The large-scale drama of the film is helped by the suitably dramatic score by acclaimed Jewish composer Hans Zimmer (he has been nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won one (Best Original Score for 1995’s The Lion King)). His music never overshadows the action and knows when to quiet down for extra dramatic purpose.
On the other hand, though it takes place during World War II, it is not a film about World War II. It only tells the story of the evacuation of Dunkirk. Though the Germans are the enemies, I am not sure that the word “Nazi” was used at all in the film. There is no talk about why they are at war or what they are fighting for. Christopher Nolan wanted to make this film so that the heroes of Dunkirk would have their story told. There is no larger political statement here. Its intimacy comes from its intentional lack of a larger context.
Dunkirk is intense and exciting and its 107-minute running time absolutely flew by. As a war movie, it is probably the best I have seen this decade. But overall, I was not able to get emotionally invested enough in the characters to call this a great film.
The performances are solid, but the screenplay (by Nolan) is more interested in the how and why of the situation and less interested in the individual people. While I did find Nolan’s focus on strategy over character interesting, in the end, I was left slightly disappointed. I was not able to connect with the film as strongly as I wanted to. Dunkirk is a very good war movie that successfully honors the soldiers in and around Dunkirk, France during the evacuation. But, as a whole, it falls a little short of greatness. Four out of five stars.
By Ben Pivoz, Special to the Jewish News