A Film Review by Tim Riley

DUNKIRK (Rated PG-13) British director Christopher Nolan, acclaimed filmmaker of “The Dark Knight” trilogy and “Inception” among others, has created a masterpiece of wartime survival based upon a crucial chapter in the history of World War II in the epic “Dunkirk.”

At the outset of “Dunkirk,” the credits make it clear this is more than a war film, noting that the Allied forces were surrounded by the German army on the beaches of the French coastal city, merely 26 miles away from Great Britain, separated by the seas of the English Channel.

Yet for approximately 400,000 British and Allied forces, including French, Canadian and Belgian soldiers, survival was very much in doubt as air bombardments from the Luftwaffe threatened to sink all ships. The troops were hoping for deliverance and a miracle.

In late May 1940, the outcome of the war on the European front was very much in doubt even before the United States entered the fray in December 1941, when days after Pearl Harbor the Germans declared war on us.History could have been quite different without the successful rescue operation at Dunkirk. Nolan effectively captures the precarious nature of the evacuation that occurred over the course of more than an intense week. The structure of “Dunkirk” is fascinating in its execution. Three parallel stories are woven into one central theme. A battle in the air is short-lived, the flotilla of rescue boats occupies a day and the evacuation on the beachfront lasts more than a week.

If “Dunkirk” has one character to serve as the Everyman, it could fall to British soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) who barely survives enemy fire in a neighboring town only to find himself stranded on the Dunkirk beach with hundreds of thousands awaiting their fate. It’s through Tommy’s experiences, either trying to get a wounded soldier onto a Red Cross hospital ship that is soon bombed by the Germans or holed up with other scared young soldiers in the hull of a boat full of leaks, that we see the harrowing ordeal of the evacuation.

Meanwhile, as naval Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and ranking Army officer Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) organize the logistics of boats and ships docking in the challenging shallow waters, the RAF Spitfires offer the only credible line of defense.

A few hardy fighter pilots take on the superior German airpower with brilliantly staged dogfights over the English Channel. The director’s keen sense of realism shows how difficult it is to align an enemy target for a direct hit with machine gun fire in tight aerial engagements. The senior RAF pilot is Farrier (Tom Hardy), who turns out to be the heart and soul of the aerial dogfights as he defies the logistics of fuel capacity to continue the fight until he can no longer safely return to the home base.

The interesting thing about the pilots is that their heroism is realized only by restricted movements in small cockpits with just expressive looks hidden mostly behind protective masks. Tom Hardy has carried this off before as the masked Bane in a Nolan-directed “Batman” film. Back in coastal England, a flotilla of pleasure craft and small boats are recruited from private citizens to undertake a seagoing rescue. Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson, motivated by patriotism, steers his small boat across the Channel with help from his son and another teen boy.

If Tommy stands for the everyday soldier, then Mr. Dawson is the embodiment of the citizen effort at sea. His journey is not without peril or added tension when he rescues a shell-shocked sailor (Cillian Murphy) who is adamantly opposed to returning to the battle scene. On the whole “Dunkirk” is an ensemble film, even if standout performances come from young Fionn Whitehead and the middle-aged Mark Rylance. In any case, it’s a story told mostly through action and not an excessive amount of dialogue or any backstory.

On June 4, 1940 in the wake of the Dunkirk evacuation, Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave his famous speech in the House of Commons, in which he said England would fight on the beaches, in the hills and that surrender was never an option. Churchill needed his nation to know that the war effort raged on, observing in this speech that England “must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.” In “Dunkirk,” Nolan captures the spirit of heroic acts, whether it’s from the RAF Spitfire pilots fighting until their fuel runs out or ordinary citizens entering the dangerous mission with pleasure craft to rescue stranded soldiers.

The feeling that a turning point in the war has been realized with the Dunkirk operation is a palpable sign of hope for a future free of the oppression that would surely have come with a victory by Nazi Germany so early in the war. “Dunkirk” just might be a film for the ages, a serious-minded effort that defies the usual escapist fare that dominates the summer box office. This is about heroism, though often nuanced by human errors, without silly capes and superpowers.

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