On May 26, 1940, over 400,000 British soldiers found themselves stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, France. Outnumbered and surrounded by German artillery, these young men were in a hopeless situation. That was until hundreds of civilian boats came to their rescue. This came to be known as the Miracle of Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan recreates this moment of heroism in Dunkirk, a multi-layered tale of heroism in the face of overwhelming hopelessness.
I’ve already praised this film as my favourite of 2017, so it makes it a challenge to say anything new about it. Fortunately, the film’s three storylines offer a unique reviewing opportunity. So, I divide this review by plotlines.
The Mole takes place over the course of a week on the Dunkirk beaches with Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), one of the British soldiers stranded and surrounded by the enemy. This section feels more like a horror movie than a war movie. This whole film finds Tommy and fellow soldiers in a relentless state of desperation as they try to hide from enemy fire. But no matter where they go, the enemy is always ready to pick them off. They can’t go into the city without the risk of being shot at. They can’t stay in the docks without airplanes dropping bombs on them. They can’t use the boats with the risk of torpedoes. Every attempt at escape or safety only makes their situation more hopeless.
The Sea follows a day in the life of Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), one of many civilians recruited by the Navy to send their boats to rescue the soldiers. Joined by his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and young neighbour George (Barry Keoghan) set sail, Mr. Dawson heads to Dunkirk to serve his country. But when they encounter a traumatized soldier (Cillian Murphy) trapped on a capsized mission, these brave civilians find their sense of duty put to the test. Of all the segments in this film, this one is the most character oriented. It’s the only time where we truly get to know the characters. Mr. Dawson portrays a strong sense of duty in his mission, only to find it tested when the soldier refuses to return to Dunkirk. This segment also gives the film some room to breathe.
The Air brings into an hour with fighter pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) as they shoot down enemy pilots. When a broken gauge leaves Farrier with no idea how much fuel he has left, He gives himself an hour to prevent the enemy planes from gunning down his fellow soldiers. This one is the most action-oriented of all the segments, as these pilots race against time to gun down other planes.
Nolan has these stories overlap each other. This demonstrates how events can change overnight. In a first segment, we see the traumatized soldier as a level-headed leader. When these segments intersect, we can see how moments and people can change in an instant and how gestures can be misunderstood. Nolan uses these segments to show that events like these are not one story, but a collection of stories working together toward a common goal. Darkest Hour only adds to this by telling the story from the perspective of the Government.
The result is no to much a film as it is an experience. Always looking to challenge himself, Nolan took this moment of heroism and used a multi-layered story structure to build a wider sense of perspective. Then he challenged himself to tell the story with as little dialogue as possible. He also kept the audience in a state of suspense with no sign of relief. The result is a rare war movie that truly feels like its offering something new to the genre. It’s also a reminder of why the release of a Christopher Nolan film feels like an event.