Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is not a conventional war film. The movie uses sparse dialogue and stunning visuals to convey the feelings of the people involved in the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940. There is no saving Private Ryan. No guns of Navarone. No Patton. It is a simplified version of The Longest Day that is brought to life with incredible technology and a directing style that is closely aligned with a psychological thriller.
There is no traditional narrative in place for Dunkirk. The film is centered around different groups of people that were involved with separate phases of the evacuation on land, air, and sea. The movie also condenses the timeline of Dunkirk by blending their actions together in a way that promotes a sense of urgency.
The primary focus of the film is on a small group of soldiers who undergo various trials as they try different measures of desperation to get from France to England under the duress of German troops, U-boats, and aircraft. Dunkirk also follows pilots of the Royal Air Force with limited fuel as they tangle with the Luftwaffe. The third group of the movie is a small boat crewed by English civilians as they try to help their fellow countrymen return home
None of the characters are ever fleshed out with a backstory or secondary plot. Every actor on screen is either just trying to get home or demonstrating courage trying to help others across the English Channel. It is not an over-the-top action film either. At no point does the movie feel like Nolan is showing off what he can do with blood tubes or pyrotechnics. Most of the drama is psychological and emotional and there is little small talk between the characters.
Before its release, Nolan’s prolific use of IMAX cameras was a widely-discussed aspect of the film. Dunkirk is an undeniable visual masterpiece.
The aerial photography of Dunkirk is a singular achievement. While it does not occur at the Mach speeds of a previous triumph in movie dogfighting, Top Gun, Christopher Nolan does succeed at putting the audience in the cockpit with fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force. There are several moments where the omniscience of the IMAX cameras capture breathtaking shots around the Spitfire aircraft as pilots fly above the English Channel or spar with German aircraft.
Nolan’s approach to these moments is the essence of Dunkirk. There are scenes when claustrophobia and terror consume the story. These feelings are also promoted by subtle and obvious reminders that time is the most crucial obstacle to survival. Any reaction to the moment is a byproduct of Nolan’s skill at pushing the visual and emotional envelope.
Dunkirk may not be for a wide audience, but that does not mean that the film is not accessible to everyone. It is the type of movie that requires suspension of traditional expectations. Audience members that require quippy scripts and an orderly structure for movies may not enjoy Dunkirk, but a change in approach to viewing the film may be a healthy break from the usual blockbuster.
There is no overall plot to be hashed out, although you do not have to invent a complex script when trying to bring an event like Dunkirk to the screen. You can appreciate the film by knowing that much of what happened is a depiction of the real struggles of 400,000 men and a nation desperate to survive. What Christopher Nolan and the cast do best is put the audience on the beaches, in the air, and on the sea with men who are just trying to get home.