Dunkirk (2017): Christopher Nolan
Folks got confused when they heard a war movie about British heroes directed by British director Christopher Nolan would last–gasp–less than two hours.
Thank Chris it did! Dunkirk was 2017’s most exhilarating action movie, with about as many words spoken as minutes lasted.
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Trapped at Dunkirk, the British Expeditionary Force wants to go home, and they’ll do whatever it takes to survive.
Three stories intersect in Dunkirk’s climactic moments. I could say the movie has three heroes, but it’s really one. The movie opens and closes on Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), one of the 400,000-plus British soldiers trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, surrounded by “the enemy” in June 1940.
Tommy and five other soldiers wander the leaflet-strewn streets of the city searching for water, food, and cigarettes. The town is quiet, until the terrifying rat-tat-tat-tat of German machine guns strike down the lads from behind.
Tommy and the others run toward a driveway gate. Tommy throws his rifle over before himself, taking cover behind the wood gate. He turns and fires his weapon blindly through the gate as it’s peppered by increasingly rapid gunfire.
Tommy forgets the fight and runs. He’s nearly killed by entrenched French forces, walking through their sandbag bunkers to reach the coast and await evacuation. Welcome, Tommy, to the worst week of your life.
Tommy and the rest of the British Expeditionary Force queue up on the long, oh so bloody long northern French beaches, where they await small boats to row them to the big ships that will sail home to Britain, a few hours away.
Not so fast. Shortly after Tommy arrives on the beach he’s nearly killed by a Luftwaffe plane dropping bombs in a line on the mass of men on the beach. Tommy also catches a French soldier (Aneurin Barnard) burying a Brit and taking his clothes. Smart man, that Frenchman, because only the British are being evacuated at present.
Tommy and the unnamed French soldier team up to gain a spot on a hostital ship. After the air raid, they find a stretcher whose carriers were killed. Taking their places, the two men run to a ship that’s minutes from leaving, only to be kicked off it when they arrive and deposit the wounded man. They hide on the pier, and are glad for it when the Germans bomb the ship and everyone bails out. Some are crushed when the ship smashes into the dock.
That’s just day one. Tommy and some hangers-on spend the week in the water and on the beach, tossed back and forth by German weapons and British officers, desperate to do anything to get off those damn beaches. One night, Tommy, the French guy, and Harry Styles board an actual warship. Treated to bread with jam, they expect to be saved. Tommy is not so certain. He keeps close to the door, just in case, and it’s a smart move, because when a torpedo knocks the ship on its side he’s ready to swim out when the French guy opens the hatch.
Tommy’s finest moment comes later, when his trio of soldiers has hooked up with another squad to sit in a beached trawler to await the incoming tide. As they do, some Germans take target practice on the hull of a ship they believe is unmanned. Politeness breaks down, and Harry Styles accuses the French guy of being a Nazi spy. Harry drums up support for sending Frenchie overboard and to his capture. Well, Tommy won’t let him. He says its not worth surviving to have done that to an ally.
Yeah, that’s it. Listen, the merits of Dunkirk are not to be found in dialogue, expressive acting, or grand gestures of sacrifice and courage. After the soldiers return to England’s shores, they are met with hot soup and a blanket. One volunteer, doling out those blankets, tells the lads they did a good job. “All we did was survive,” Harry Styles says. The old man replies, “That’s enough.”
The bulk of the British Expeditionary Force survived the Germans surrounding them at Dunkirk. That it was a colossal military defeat was lost on no one, yet the men survived to fight another day. Dunkirk is less a war movie than a survival tale a la The Revenant. The little things Tommy does add up to survival–standing near the ship’s hatch, running with an injured man on a stretcher to board a hospital ship, hiding on the pier–aid his living out the week.
We all know the Germans are the enemy, but Dunkirk is careful to leave them out. We don’t see one German face during the 100-minute runtime, and only four German figures. As many enemy planes are on screen as people. The opening exposition calls Germany “the enemy.” As I said, this is a survival story more than a war movie.
Still, survival movies have enemies. Often it’s Mother Nature; this time it’s Father Stuka and Brother Messerschmitt. Unseen soldiers fire machine guns at Tommy and his friends to start the movie. Buzzing fighters pepper Tom Hardy and his mates with gunfire. Lumbering bombers drop loads on British minesweepers, destroyers, and hospital ships. Bored soldiers target practice on a beached ship with a dozen Brits hiding in it.
Turning the enemy into a faceless monster actaully makes them more realistic. We, the viewer, experience the evacuation exactly as the Brits did, with no idea what the Germans were doing or when then would attack, only that they would.
Think you’re safe on a destroyer eating jam and having a cuppa? Think again. Think you’re safe in a rusting hulk of a boat? Think again. Think you’re safe when a civilian boat plucks you from the sinking hull of a minesweeper? Think again. Dunkirk ain’t finished with you, and neither is Germany.
Dunkirk is the most technically well made action movie since Mad Max: Fury Road. Action is light, but its editing, score, and camera work meld perfectly to create tremendous tension atop beautiful backgrounds. The dogfights I cover in the Stunts section below.
Let’s talk about the ships at The Mole. Tommy and his French friend find a stretcher and carry it to the mole, one of two such structure protecting the harbor around Dunkirk. Through a sea of men they barrel, hauling the stretcher toward a hospital ship that’s departing in less than two minutes.
Higher ups try to keep them off the ship, but Tommy plans to survive. The big drama here is whether or not they will walk across a single board stretching over a hole in the dock. They do, and are cheered for it. The Limeys have to take their victories where they can, at this point in the war.
After dropping their cargo on board, the two walking soldiers are ordered off the ship. They hide underneath the dock. Then fall the bombs. The planes sound like thunder as they streak overhead at bombing level and the bombs hit the water sounding like zippers. Some bombs explode on the ship and others on the dock, sending men to their deaths. Bullets strike the wood dock sounding like cards on bike spokes.
Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) orders the ship cast off and out to sea. A ship sunk in the protected waters could end any chance of docking another ship. Well, too bad, because that ship is about to sink. But before it sinks, it keels into the dock, crushing several soldiers who have leapt onto that side.
Tommy and the French guy watch all of this with mute horror. They find Harry Styles swimming between the dock and the ship that’s about to crush him and help pull him to safety. Finally, the lads dip themselves into the water to make it seem like they were on the ship, which they were, though they didn’t leap from it.
That night, Tommy, French guy, and Harry find themselves on a different ship, a destroyer. While many enjoy refreshments below decks, the French guy stays above, and he’s one of the first to spot the torpedo sputtering toward the ship. What a terrifying sight a torpedo was. The underwater missile churns water like a flopping fish, and moves about as slowly, but it’s straight, inexorable trajectory allows you, the person who sees it, to contemplate the inevitable destruction about to hit you in three…two…one. BOOM.
The torpedo knocks out the lights on the ship that turns over quickly. It’s chaos below decks, which fill with water. Tommy swims toward the hatch door, which he’s watching to open. He and others are kicked in their heads by panicking swimmers. The French guy opens the door before bailing, and Tommy, seeing an exposed light, bolts for it. They survive the second sinking of the week.
The final ship bombing of the week occurs on a minesweeper, the climactic moments of Dunkirk.
Dunkirk lacks in dialogue and character development. Who cares? The sound team won two Oscars for its work, and has an Academy Award ever been more deserved? The thunder of airplane engines’ 1,700 horsepower made me look for cover amongst theater seats. Long stretches of quiet are broken by blasts and booms, wrenching wood and screaming soldiers. Unseen, the German planes are like demons shrieking through the sky. Dunkirk‘s action shakes your bones.
One morning (June 3 or 4, perhaps), a boat captain named Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), upon very stern nudging from the Admiralty, leaves an English dock with his son and another lad from the town to sail to Dunkirk, where they “have a job to do.”
More than 100 small craft crossed the Channel to evacuate the 400,000 soldiers trapped near Dunkirk. Dawson understands fully his role in the war. “Men my age dictate this war,” he says to a shaken soldier rescued from a sunken ship. “Why should we be allowed to send our children to fight it?”
Dawson navigates his boat soundly. He might be a fisherman today, but it’s clear he knows a thing or two, or twelve, about war. Late in the movie, after dozens of oil-soaked men have boarded, a German fighter streaks by, eager for a kill of any size. Dawson orders his son to pilot the boat, telling him to wait until the plane commits to his line before steering the boat in the correct direction. The tactic works.
Dawson serves as the audience’s vessel into the story. He tells the two kids on his boat the names of the planes, where they are going and why. Together they save Collins (Jack Lowden), the RAF pilot who ditched his shot plane, from drowning. They are also on the scene for climax.
Three Spitfires patrol the skies above Dunkirk. One of the pilots is Tom Hardy, in another face-blocking role. Customers don’t come much cooler than Hardy’s Farrier, a man who loses the ability to track his fuel and aid shot at like both aspects might ruin his afternoon, if not end his life.
One of the few RAF pilots aiding the Dunkirk evacuation, Farrier shoots down more than one enemy plane without himself being hurt. He aids his brothers in the sky until they are shot down, and he keeps flying after he’s lost the fuel in the main tank.
His key moment arrives when he spots a German bomber in the rearview mirror. Farrier can fly back to England, or he can engage the plane. He’s enough fuel for one act, not both. He chooses the side of heroism.
He runs out a fuel, but is able to kill another plane after that, flying silently like Wonder Woman in her invisible jet. He lands on the French coast and is captured by the only Germans seen onscreen.
We never hear a German word, see a German face, or glimpse a German dead body. They’re the villains. There have no henchmen.
There is Cillian Murphy, a shellshocked soldier rescued by Dawson. This guy doesn’t want to go back to Dunkirk, certain he will die there. He’s so mad about it that he ends up killing the young boy Dawson brought with him from England. Boy was only 17.
Despite the few aircraft engaged in the fight over Dunkirk, the movie excels in depicting dogfighting. Dunkirk showcases possibly the best aerial combat ever put to film.
Tom Hardy’s character and two other Royal Air Force pilots patrol the skies above Dunkirk. At first they fly in formation, a perfectly executed flying maneuver shown several times from the air and the sea. These planes fly as if one unit connected invisibly, and that alone is a memorable sight.
Pretty soon the Nazis show up. A German fighter drops from the clouds and immediately shoots down the squad leader, the unseen “Fortis leader.” Farrier’s mate Collins is the target of the enemy fighter. “He’s on me,” he says over the radio to Farrier. “I’m on him,” his partner says back. The pilots display no emotion at the prospect of being shot down over the English Channel or North Sea, wherever they are.
Farrier spots the fighter often in his gunsight, and his shots sound like pebbles thrown at a sheet metal for their speed and violence. However, it always seems that Farrier starts shooting too late, as he waits until the plane is in his sight before shooting, when it seems that he should start firing in anticipation of that targeting. During the dogfight, Farrier’s fuel gauge breaks, so he must guess his fuel based on his partner’s and hope he’s not leaking anything.
Farrier kills the German fighter and all is well, until another fighter materializes and sprays gunfire at the British planes. The guns hit Collins’s plane six times, forcing him out of the fight and into the drink. With a low swell, he chooses to ditch the plane rather than bail from it. Farrier, on his own, downs the other fighter.
And that’s all you get from the pilots in the sky before the three storylines converge. But WOW were those some scenes. Dunkirk is beautiful to watch, never more so than the moments the camera follows the planes. Cameras affixed to wings track bullet holes and swift turns. Planes fly through clouds and always above the vast expanse of sea that’s really not, only a few minutes from England or France, though, if you ditch in it alone, one mile might as well be one thousand.
Filming planes in flight, and especially dogfighting, might be a cinematographer’s toughest challenge. Dunkirk nailed it. Thanks to shooting and editing, I was never in doubt about the locations of the planes, except when the British pilots were. No one is doing crazy air braking or reverse flying tactics to down the enemy. Get above him, get in clouds, and kill him: that’s about it, and it never looked so good.
And the views! Pilots must feel like gods, to be so high above the Earth, yet must feel like ants, to recognize their small stature as they contemplate the Earth’s vastness. You can’t help but empathize after seeing Dunkirk.
On the ground and at sea, stunt actors had their work cut out for them. Air cannons simulated exploding German bombs, and they covered a lot of people with sand on the beach after the initial bomber run. Three large British ships sink during the movie: a hospital ship, a destroyer, and a minesweeper. These sets were made in California, and were filled with water and sloshed around. As the bombed or torpedoed ships roll slowly, spouting flames, several sailors and soldiers clamor as far from the center of rotations possible, eager to get free of superstructure that would pin them and drown them. It was cool to see men slide off the hulls to survive.
A week, a day, and an hour earlier, we joined our three main characters. Tommy has suffered longest. He’s boarded a beached trawler that is about to become the third boat of his week to sink. This boat, being dragged out to sea, is nearing a minesweeper.
So is Dawson. He’s picked up the pilot Collins nearby, and together they are watching Farrier attack the bomber that’s attacking the minesweeper. Tommy, poor guy, is swimming to save his life.
We watch the bomber drop a payload on the minesweeper, scoring a direct hit. Black smoke billows and sends more soldiers into the water. It also sends oil into a patch of water between the minesweeper and the trawler. Tommy and the British mates are swimming toward the minesweeper as it is attacked and leaking oil, swimming into that oil. Dawson can only watch and take on the soldiers swimming to him.
Farrier’s run out of fuel in his main tank and switched to reserves. As the bomber kills the minesweeper, he has a choice: fly back to England or fight. He fights.
Farrier turns his plane around to re-engage the bomber as the latter turns to make another run on the ship or the men in the water. An unescorted bomber is the easiest kill in the skies for a Spitfire, and soon it’s hit in an engine. Just one problem, it’s going to crash into the oil patch. When it does, the oil catches fire. A lot of guys are burned. Dawson keeps his boat safe, though, and Tommy, dragged with it, comes up for air before drowning.
Meanwhile, the civilian vessels have arrived. The music is never more hopeful. The troops start loading from the beaches. Bolton is never happier, though he still won’t show his teeth. Maybe he doesn’t have any.
But not before they hear another German plane thundering toward them. The screen fills with Bolton’s grim face. Then, suddenly, the plane is dead, shot by Farrier, who’s without fuel and coasting silently. Cheers ring out. The evacuation will succeed.
Dawson sails home, Bolton stays to aid the French, and Farrier touches down on the beach, torching his plane and accepting capture from the only Germans seen in the movie.
Tommy and Harry Styles, riding a train home, read of Churchill’s address to Parliament, one of the finest speeches of the 20th century. “We shall defend our island,” Tommy reads in the monotone of a man who’s survived three ships sinking in a week, “whatever the cost may be. … We shall never surrender…until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
Damn, that’s a speech.
Uh, yeah right.
Millions of people vacation in France every year. It’s the world’s most popular destination for international travel. That’s a long cry from June 1940, when hundreds of thousands of Brits tried about everything to leave.
If you like choppy seas and foamy beaches, head to northern France. Soldiers queue up on sands stretching back fifty yards from the water, making their evacuation impossible except by small craft. Some try to escape through The Mole, a long brick wall jutting into the sea. That becomes their final destination, for many.
Shot mostly on the actual evacuation beaches, Dunkirk is one of the most realistic war movies ever made. It’s settings add so much to it. Real planes flew real sorties over real water. Real models (remote piloted) crashed into the real ocean. Cinematographers were inside real planes trailing all of this. A stunt pilot landed a real plane on a real French beach.
Add these real locations to the flooded ship sets made in California and the huge vessels sailed and sunk and floating in the sea and you get an in-your-face realism CGI can’t replicate. And, filmed primarily with IMAX cameras, Dunkirk puts you in the battle unlike any war movie since Saving Private Ryan.
Germany, bad; Britain, good.
It’s about all white dudes in Dunkirk. I suspect the battle looked about the same. Indian and Algerian soldiers made contributions, though, and are barely if at all seen.
- (2) Absolutely robbed at the Oscars, Hans Zimmer’s stopwatch-based score seems to get faster and faster. The tension created elevates Dunkirk from beautiful war movie to riveting, chair-gripping thriller. Zimmer’s had a LONG career scoring movies (The Dark Knight, The Last Samurai, The Rock, Gladiator, Inception), but never have his notes carried more weight in a film.
- (3) Automatic war movie bonus
Summary (41/68): 60%
Landing 14th on the 2017 box office chart, earning a Best Picture Oscar nomination and seven others, winning three, Dunkirk had the best haul of any action movie of the year. All this without a script. So the joke goes. Dunkirk proves that movies can and should look and sound memorable. Movies aren’t books.