Special to The History Place
We all know the epic story. For 10 days in late May and early June 1940 the fate of Great Britain, and by implication the free world, depended upon events on the Dunkirk beaches. Having bottled up the English army with its back to the Channel, the Germans inexplicably halted. Hitler granted his buddy Goering the “honor” of destroying the Brits from the air, while Nazi armor was held in reserve to the west. Though invading Russia was probably Hitler’s worst wartime decision, allowing Britain this breather must be a very close second.
Acclaimed Director Christopher Nolan (The Prestige; The Dark Knight) recounts how the English took advantage of the German respite to rescue more than 300,000 troops, filming on land and sea and in the air. The use of 65mm film stock gives the movie the look of older WWII epics like A Bridge Too Far. For the most part, he eschewed computer-generated imagery (CGI) in favor of thousands of extras. Boats that actually participated in the evacuation perform an encore, as do planes appropriate to the era.
Whether these techniques will net technical Oscars next year, I will place serious money on Dunkirk garnering Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing. The combination of musical score and sound effects is both riveting and jarring. At some moments the noises of battle rattled right through me. Close your eyes and you’re still in the thick of it all.
As noted, Nolan tells his story from three perspectives: land, sea and air. He tells it with sparse dialogue and intense performances drawn from a cast of mostly unknown young men. Because they are unfamiliar faces on the big screen, their predicaments come across as all the more real. A handful of famous faces also appear in mostly very modest roles: Kenneth Branagh as the pier master in charge of the evacuation; Tom Hardy as a Spitfire pilot; Cillian Murphy as a soldier suffering from PTSD. The largest and best performance by a known commodity is Mark Rylance (Best Supporting Actor for Bridge of Spies) as one of the thousands of civilian sailors who pulled off the historic rescue effort.
The minimalist, intense performances raise Dunkirk above being only a cinematic tour de force, making it a memorable human-interest story. Nolan is a master at pulling this off. In The Dark Knight (2008) he transformed the comic-book character “The Joker” (played brilliantly by the late Heath Ledger) into a grungy madman who seemed all too real in our terrorized millennium. In Dunkirk no heroes are writ large. The men who managed to save England from an existential defeat range from pilots and sailors doing their duty without fanfare or fancy phrases to kids caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, who are just scrambling to stay in one piece. It’s this ability to simultaneously make an epic action film and an intensely personal drama that sets Nolan apart from the factories spewing forth an endless stream of super-hero clones these days. Dunkirk is drawing the big audiences it deserves. It’s my pick for the best summer movie of 2017.
Rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language.
Oscars® is a registered trademark of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Jim Castagnera is a Principal in Holland Media Services, LLC. He is the author of 20 books, including Counter Terrorism Issues: Case Studies in the Courtroom. During the past five years he has reviewed more than 50 films for The History Place.