Christopher Nolan has another success on his hands with Dunkirk. While it won’t drive the box office like The Dark Knight, audiences will marvel at the humanity of self-sacrifice demonstrated. But before I say much more, I have to warn you that this film requires a lot of thinking and possibly a second viewing to fully comprehend.
Nolan’s artistic choices, which will not surprise fans, were spot on and amazing. However, his decision to tell three complete stories simultaneously, which all converge in act three, forces the audience to pay close attention during the entire two-hour film. This is not the type of film you’d want to excuse yourself from to take a call, get a refill, or use the restroom.
The story is about the actual events in May of 1940. Germany advanced into France and trapped Allied troops on the beaches of Dunkirk. British and French forces provided air and ground cover, while troops were methodically evacuated using every naval and civilian vessel that could be found.
The orders were to evacuate 30,000 men leaving the rest as acceptable losses, but the man in charge demanded 45,000. Thanks to the self-sacrificing actions of many that evolved into heroes as the events unfolded, about 330,000 French, British, Belgian and Dutch soldiers were actually evacuated.
The movie opens with no credits and what appears to be a boring scene, until you realize it was one of the few lulls in an intense battle that catapults you back to the reality of World War II. The film alternates between three stories told from the perspective of land, air and sea. Each story focuses on only one hero in the making based on the significant self-sacrificing choices made.
While the film has little dialog, due to the circumstances that prevail on screen, each story rises in intensity to the point where you demand to know the outcome. You soon realize that your body is contorting in a rhythm that cheers on each protagonist to make the right choice, not the safe one. Warning: No one under five feet tall should ride this intense emotional rollercoaster.
I can’t remember a film that caused me to flinch, duck and squirm in synchronicity with the protagonist for some time. And when my favorite of the three storylines climaxed, my heart felt every pounding second of contemplating the young man’s decision. He did what was right for the war efforts, not what was right for his own soul. His self-sacrifice gave rise within me to rejoice at the epilogue of that storyline—and, determine for myself to consider the greater good of those around me over my own need for survival.
Dunkirk was a stirring and uplifting film worthy of an Oscar. But, most who attend the screening will get lost in the braided stories and wonder what I saw in the film. To them I heartily say, “Watch it a second and third time until you get it.” Yes, it is worth your time. But, if you only enjoy movies where you don’t have to think, avoid this one no matter what the cost. The value of this film only rises out of thought and ones ability to relate to one of the three main heroes.
My friend emotionally clicked with the air story and I related to the sea story. But both of us took much needed time after the film to discuss what we saw, as the film’s complexities were similar to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Our discussion allowed us to better comprehend what we missed and the other had caught.
If it weren’t for the difficult-to-follow braided storylines, I’d give this film a 5-star rating, but its complexities reduces it to a solid 4-star rating. However, for those who don’t struggle to follow the three intertwined stories, you’ll certainly give it a 5-star rating, no questions asked.
As we reflected on the film my friend said, “I’m not sure what we just watched, but it’s obvious it was something really great. I think this is the kind of film you can watch over and over again, picking up on all the subtleties you missed in previous viewings.” I agreed. Dunkirk will be as great as you can keep up.