The battle and escape at Dunkirk was a defining point during the first stages of World War II — it ultimately rallied the British who were at one point considering a conditional surrender to Germany. The safe return of 330,000 British and allied soldiers with the help of civilian forces spurred a counterpoint to Germany’s blitzkrieg that was pushing its way through Europe with relative ease.
But the movie is a collection of parables that uses the event as a backdrop to explore the paradigm of human existence. Compressing time and space, Dunkirk is a microcosm of chaos, beauty, and the circle of human life.
The movie opens with a literal bang as German soldiers open fire on Allied troops who have, so far, maintained an uneasy and untenable position with their backs to the French oceanside in Dunkirk. A few hundred-thousand troops wait on the beach as, one by one, ships pick up the wounded first.
While the Germans wait for consolidation before a final push, the Allied forces have just a small window to escape. But safety is not guaranteed, even on the edge of the battlefield — German planes fire on hapless soldiers at random intervals, and armed U-Boats patrol the waters.
Three separate and converging scenarios are spliced together to form the narrative — one beginning a week before (land), another starting a day before (sea), and the third (air) taking off an hour before the final events in the movie.
On land, Allied soldier Tommy happens upon another soldier burying a fallen warrior. Desperate to escape, the pair pick up a stretcher, hoping to conceal themselves as medics in order to get on the next leaving ship. Tommy and his new acquaintance hardly speak a word during the entire movie, but their journey takes them to sea, back to land, and into a taut and dangerous situation where survival turns allies into foes.
At sea and back in England, Mr. Dawson readies his civilian ship for a rescue mission. Rather than let the Royal Navy commandeer his boat, Dawson and his son decide to risk their lives to travel directly to Dunkirk. They’re joined by the young George, a family friend looking to find meaning in his own life.
While the small boat floats into dangerous waters, a squadron of pilots take flight to provide air support for the troops on the beach. Limited by fuel, each pilot keeps a wary eye on their gas gauge so they can make the flight back to base.
As the storylines spread out and begin to collide, we see how lives impact and interact with other lives — for better or worse. Dawson and his crew pick up a shipwrecked soldier whose confident bravado — earlier, he condescendingly orders Tommy and his crew back to the safety of the beach — has been completely taken over by trauma and a complete unwillingness to go anywhere near Dunkirk. As Dawson stubbornly continues heading southeast, the soldier’s anger reaches a fever pitch.
Meanwhile, Tommy joins a group of soldiers who find an abandoned and beached boat. Hoping to ride it out when the tide comes in, the boat becomes target practice for German soldiers who shoot holes into the hull.
Each character is an analog — the pilot Farrier becomes a legendary hero to the audience as he pushes his plane further and further past the point of no return. His exploits by and large go unnoticed to the rest of the characters in the film. He is the unsung hero, the moral man who rides silently into the sunset.
His counterpart is the shipwrecked soldier, whose failure has either made him a coward or a realist. Unable to cope with what he’s seen and borne witness to, he screams at Dawson and pushes George down the steps of the ship. The unintended consequence of George passing away from head trauma showcases the chaos of human interaction and conflict.
But the most heartbreaking of all is the scene inside the abandoned boat as the tide comes in. The boat starts to float, but he bullet holes have caused too much damage to let it sail away without some weight being dropped. The soldiers frantically decide who to cast out, and they discriminate on nationality.
Tommy won’t stand for it — the soldier he met on the beach turns out to be a French soldier hoping to leave with the English forces. As the boat sinks, every man looks out for himself, but Tommy returns home with a clear conscience while his compatriot views the world as he views himself — ungrateful, unforgiving, and ugly.
I won’t say Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus, though it is a brilliant film that should be seen in IMAX if you have the chance. The maximum impact of sight and sound makes you feel like a witness — the whistling bombs, the roar of plane engines that are heard before they’re seen, and bullets ringing out with heart-stopping proximity.
Either way, it’s an experience for both the mind and heart. It’s a war movie that’s not just about the last great war — it’s a tale as old as time: The story of life and death.