Redeeming himself from his mind-numbing Interstellar, writer/director Christopher Nolan has fashioned a historical biopic told in a non-linear, three-part narrative from different points of view, which all collide at the end. An impressive juggling feat that only Nolan and his trusty IMAX cameras can bring to the screen.
Based on true events, we begin in 1940 Dunkirk, France, right before the U.S.’s entry into WW2. Story #1: A disastrous military blunder has left the beaches there strewn with 400,000 soldiers waiting for transport to take them home, a mere 55 miles across the English Channel to Britain. BUT! With no hiding space on the beach and the ships being late, the men are sitting ducks to German planes, strafing the shoreline and bombing the ships. Here we meet Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a soldier that is desperate to get off the beach and tries anything to get home, even sneaking on-board a wounded-only ship.
The only way to get the men off the beach faster is to enlist the random boats and vessels of private citizens back home to sail to Dunkirk. That’s Story #2: Fisherman by trade, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his teen son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and their young friend, George (Barry Keoghan), set off for Dunkirk and pick up a stranded solider (Cillian Murphy) afloat at sea. But this PTSD affected man has little intention of going back to the place he just came from and demands that Mr. Dawson turn his boat around.
Up in the air above, three British Spitfire planes are closing in on Dunkirk, taking out enemy fighters along the way, which leads us to Story #3. Using NO CGI, the aerial dogfights are breathtaking, as these three brave pilots risk it all to save the soldiers on the ships below. After one of them is shot down, it’s up to remaining pilots Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy) to carry on, which isn’t easy with wave after wave of German Messerschmidt’s on their tails. Collins and Farrier manage to hang on, until…
The three storylines soon converge with each other as Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), lamenting the day, surveys the damage from the pier as Tommy, having THE worst luck EVER, can’t seem to catch a break leaving. There’s trouble on-board Mr. Dawson’s boat as multiple explosions and ships are being blown up, despite the last-ditch efforts of Farrier, who is having problems of his own. Everything finally comes to dramatic and harrowing conclusion as the timelines meet and the stories sync-up. Now, imagine all this with Hans Zimmer’s constant clock-ticking, pulse-pounding, musical score. Whew! What a ride!
Nolan has spared us the gory, gruesome, blood-soaked violence, usually associated with other war films like Saving Private Ryan, so there’s very little of that here. But what he leaves behind in blood ‘n’ guts on the screen, he more than makes up with in nerve-quickening energy and visual style. The man knows how to direct the hell out of a movie. Also writing this film, it’s surprising short on dialogue; Nolan has the characters do their ‘talking’ with their eyes and acting. Hardy, for example spends 99% of the movie wearing a flight mask, yet conveys so much with just his eyes, just like he did as Bane in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises.
Whitehead as Tommy is great, capturing the whole boy-next-door innocence both with a look of wonder and dread, but it’s Rylance as the doting father Dawson that makes the film. His time on the boat with his son and the soldier is amazing and filled with sympathy. You’d think with an epic film and storytelling such as this, the movie would span a good two and half hours easy, but shockingly, it’s only 1hr and 47min.