It would have been a shame if this film about one of the most inspiring episodes of World War II had fallen prey to Hollywood cheesiness, a far-fetched romance, or a surfeit of special effects. This movie, written and directed by Christopher Nolan (trailer) is really not about the fate of individuals. (In the lack of dismembered and disemboweled bodies, it’s the antithesis of, say, Hacksaw Ridge.) It’s about the fate and movements of the group, much like the Dunkirk rescue itself, and it strikes the right balance between emotion and action, with just enough special effects (well, quite a lot, really) to convey the extreme peril and disarray in which the rescue was carried out.
The backstory is familiar, and Nolan shows us no strutting Nazi officers or steely-eyed German soldiers. Nor do we need to see them. By late May 1940, the German advance had stranded some 400,000 mostly British personnel on the French coast. Especially at low tide, the water was too shallow and the docking facilities too damaged for the British Navy ships to get in to pick them up. Not to mention that those big ships were sitting ducks for bombs from land and air. Meanwhile, the soldiers lined up on the mole (the sea wall) and the sand to board ships that weren’t coming, couldn’t come. Exposed on the beaches, they were being bombed and strafed too. When a rare hospital ship became available, there was every effort to board the wounded—a compassionate but consequential choice, one stretcher case taking the place of several standing men.
England was less than 40 nautical miles away by the shortest, though not the safest, route across the Channel. As the operation commander says, “You can almost see it.” “What?” asks the Army man. “Home.”
In the words of the film’s promotion, “When 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them.” The story is so well known, I’ll risk a spoiler here and remind you that an armada of almost a thousand vessels of the British Navy, augmented by private citizens’ fishing boats, pleasure craft, lifeboats, motor launches, and car ferries made repeated crossings, over several days, loaded with as many men as they could carry. Overhead, British Spitfires battled German bombers and their fighter plane escorts.
Despite the lack of in-depth personal stories, Nolan uses a number of techniques to bring this complex action to life. He never lets you forget the daunting scope of what must be accomplished. He minimizes the dialog and concentrates on an accumulation of physical details, snippets of chance and courage, moments of terror and random death. He simultaneously compresses and stretches time: the aerial battle shown took place over an hour and is intercut with actions on the beach that took place over a week. And, he provides some of the most exciting air footage I’ve seen in ages. These accumulating details symbolize the whole.
With his approach, individual stories become “less interesting for their biographical details than for the roles they play in the drama of history, however large or small they may be,” said Matt Zoller Seitz for RogerEbert.com. However, some critics have complained about these very features: the lack of backstory about the war and German decision-making, only three Spitfires, the paucity of character detail. They wanted a different movie.
In choosing the actors who do play identifiable roles, Nolan selected fine ones. Kenneth Branagh, as the operation commander, marches up and down the mole in a handsome greatcoat, while the ever-appealing James D’Arcy is the Army colonel with whom he’s coordinating. Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard are two ordinary soldiers caught up in multiple attempts to devise their own escape. Tom Hardy is lead pilot of the Spitfire squadron. And one of the small rescue boats is captained by Mark Rylance, who can do more by doing less than any actor going. Tough decisions have to be made. You sense these men could make them.
Hans Zimmer’s score, which conjures the racing heartbeats of the men in peril, was effective up until the end, when he tried for a more exalted mood.
Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%; Audiences: 83%.