Dunkirk Spoiler Review

(In our Spoiler Reviews, we take a deep dive into a new release and get to the heart of what makes it tick…and every story point is up for discussion. In this entry: Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.)

In Christopher Nolan movies, the clock is always ticking.

Time is a precious commodity, and it’s also a luxury that the characters who inhabit Nolan films do not have. With his tenth film, Dunkirk, Nolan applies his favored ticking clock narrative to its fullest, crafting arguably his best film, or at least the film that most exemplifies his considerable talents. It’s also in a way a rebuff of the criticisms that have dogged many of his films up until this point – if you thought some of Nolan’s films before Dunkirk were too exposition-heavy, here is a film with almost no exposition to speak of. If you believed his previous movies lacked emotion or feeling, witness this: a film that is relentlessly tense and harrowing, concluding with a moment of perfectly rendered emotional triumph. It seems hyperbolic to throw the “masterpiece” designation around so soon after a film is released, but if Nolan’s Dunkirk isn’t officially a masterpiece yet, time may eventually fully reward it that distinction. The clock is ticking.

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The Mole

“What I wanted to do was use the physics, use the geography…the main events, the movements and try to put those together as the backbone and the basis of the storytelling,” Nolan says of the film in The Making of Dunkirk. “So the film is designed to be experiential; the characters that arise from that, the fictional stories we follow…they’re really there to guide you through the geography of events.”

Dunkirk opens almost like a dream, awash in unreality and uncertainty. A group of British soldier wander the seemingly deserted French seaside town of Dunkirk, their backs to the camera, their identities a mystery. It’s May 1940, nine months after World War II began. The German army has invaded France, cutting off the British and French armies, stranding 400,000 men along the French coast. These British soldiers wander the much-too-quiet streets, their guard seemingly down as papers drift down from the sky like strange snowflakes. The German’s are dropping these propaganda leaflets – ominous warnings to the British troops that they’re situation is hopeless. “WE SURROUND YOU” screams the text on the leaflets, complete with black arrows representing the German forces all pointing toward the shores of Dunkirk. “SURRENDER + SURVIVE!”

Before we have a chance to learn who any of these wandering British soldiers are, they’re slaughtered. Gunfire begins, picking them off one by one. They fall dead and unnamed in the streets, as only one scrambles to safety. This is Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), who escapes the carnage by diving over a barricade set up by other British soldiers. Tommy wanders beyond the barricade, down a narrow street, and comes out to a sight that catches both him and the audience off guard – the ocean is here, cold and gray and vast beyond a beach choked with men. Troops have been ordered to wait on the shore for evacuation across the channel.

Home is only twenty-six miles away. It seems almost comically close, yet to the troops waiting on the shores of Dunkirk it’s a distance stretching across a gulf of eternity. Because as they wait, defenseless, the German Luftwaffe are free to dive-bomb them into oblivion. The Germans come in piloting their single-engine Stuka planes – planes that emit a terrifying wailing siren, like the shrieking of demons.

We’re less than ten minutes into Dunkirk, and Nolan has already made clear the fact that this is a film that will refuse to relent. There’s no peace here, no respite. Death is a constant, driving force, pushing the players around like pieces on a chessboard. Hovering just beyond all that death is home – so close and yet so far. “You can almost see it,” several characters say throughout the film, gazing across that wide blue gulf.

Nolan, a fan of twisty narratives that play with the concept of time, sets Dunkirk across three distinct locations and storylines. “The Mole”, for the soldiers stuck on the beach, set over a period of one week. “The Sea”, with characters racing towards the beach to lend assistance, taking place over one day. And then “The Air”, with two Spitfire pilots cruising the sky above over a timeline of an hour. Unlike Nolan’s previous films, Dunkirk is an ensemble narrative – there’s really no main character here, but instead a group of people scattered across the story all with one common goal: survival.

Tommy is the closest we come to a main character, but like almost all the characters in Dunkirk he remains mostly unknown to the audience. It doesn’t matter who he is, or where he’s from. All that matters is where he’s trying to go – away from Dunkirk. While Germans bomb the beach, Tommy runs for cover, and encounters Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), another soldier burying a body in the sand. There’s very little dialogue in Dunkirk, which keeps the film lean and also benefits a sort-of twist late in the film involving Gibson. The character never says a word for almost the entire film, yet because the dialogue is so sparse and the understood bond between Tommy and Gibson is so simple and effective, we almost don’t notice. Because Gibson is actually a French soldier posing as British, wearing the dog tags of the British soldier he was burying when Tommy first encounters him.

A third soldier joins Tommy and Gibson in their quest to get the hell off the beach – Alex, played by former One Direction singer Harry Styles. Alex is the more confident of these three soldiers, or least the one better at pretending he’s confident. Tommy seems impossibly young – too young to be at war, and Gibson appears almost shell-shocked. Alex, however, is almost at home among all the chaos. It’s a veneer that will eventually crack.

Try as they might to get off the beach, the three soldiers inevitably end up back there. Tommy and Gibson pose as medics, carrying a wounded man to a hospital ship, as the wounded are being evacuated first. It’s an action that has terrible consequences after a dive-bombing sinks the ship, all but ensuring the injured man they carried on board has drowned as the ship disappears beneath the murky waters. Later, when Tommy, Gibson and Alex end-up on board another ship, a torpedo sinks it, resulting in one of the most harrowing sequences in Nolan’s career. Anyone with a phobia of drowning might want to stay away from Dunkirk, as the prospect of such a painful death looms throughout the entire film. Nolan keeps the camera inside the ship as it floods completely, soldiers who were one minute enjoying tea and toast suddenly kicking and flailing for dear life, their cries muffled by water filling their lungs.

Tommy, Gibson and Alex escape the sinking ship, but now they have only one place left to go: back to Dunkirk. To await rescue that seems more and more unlikely to come. Also on land are Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy), representing the navy and the army respectively. These two men oversee the ever-mounting tensions at Dunkirk, looking out at the sea, hoping for rescue but not very confident rescue will come. And if and when it does come, will anyone even still be left? The clock is ticking, after all.

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About the Author

Chris Evangelista is a staff writer and critic for /Film, and the host of the 21st Century Spielberg podcast. Follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413 or email him at chris@chrisevangelista.net