Arts movie review

Revisiting the calamitous story of Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan’s latest film Dunkirk moves audiences.

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A scene from Christopher Nolan's film Dunkirk.
Courtesy of Warner Bros.



Written by Christopher Nolan

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Starring Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance

PG-13, Now Playing

Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front begins: “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it.” Remarque’s prose is empathetic and cautionary: the young soldiers in the novel (and the 1930 film of the same name) change drastically from their experiences. As one of the soldiers recounts, “We were 18 and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces.”

In Dunkirk, one of the civilian boats encounters an emotionally broken survivor much like the youth of Remarque’s war novel. He refuses to return to the forlorn Dunkirk, the commune in Northern France which has been surrounded by the German forces. The Allied forces have been cut off, leaving men stranded on the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk, waiting for a miracle.

The film is told from three perspectives — by land, by sea, and by air — that begin at different times. By land, young British soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) flees from German soldiers on the streets of Dunkirk until he reaches the beaches. There, he meets fellow soldier, Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), burying the dead body of another. By sea, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son, and their teenage hand George take their civilian boat out to Dunkirk to rescue the isolated soldiers. By air, Spitfire pilots struggle against a German Luftwaffe plane.

Dialogue is kept to a minimum. In this way, the audience can do nothing but watch; the soldiers never express their thoughts, but we feel their crippling fear. We feel the anxiety of pilot Collins (Jack Lowden) as he almost drowns inside the Spitfire cockpit when his plane goes down. We admire Tommy and Gibson’s risky choice to save a living soldier thought to be dead. There is something remarkable of each human decision we witness. Christopher Nolan’s storytelling here is both intimate and distant, as we know nothing of these soldiers except for their will to live, yet somehow, I find myself caring deeply of their welfare.

I was  relieved when the civilian boats finally arrive on  Dunkirk’s beaches. The soldiers stationed at Dunkirk escape, and as they returned to England on train, the crowd outside even cheers for these war heroes. But as Tommy opens the newspaper and reads Winston Churchill’s speech, the words and shouts outside ring hollow. Those who were not rescued perished; those who were saved were only saved for the next battle and the next. Life here is a walking, pale shadow.

As Mr. Dawson tells his son, if they don’t try to save the lives of these soldiers, if they don’t fight, then their homeland will be next. The civilian efforts in rescuing the troops are a testament against the callous apathy of war. Deeply humane, Dunkirk is a powerfully wrought film of men who, under the torrent of bullets, fight for their lives as the world around them falls apart.