A Rock and a Hard PlaceIt's 1940, early June, on the beaches of Dunkirk, northern France. Approximately 400,000 allied British and French troops are trapped by the sea on one side and the Nazis on the other.
They huddle on "the mole," a giant concrete pier, in dire need of evacuation back to Britain, as Nazi psych-warfare pamphlets rain down from the sky, sneering that they're basically all "fish in a barrel," ripe for imminent shooting and bombing.
War is often a lot of hurry-up-and-wait, and here that's portrayed to devastating effect—thousands of men, numb and in various states of post-traumatic stress disorder, with nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide.
The tale is told from three different perspectives—a SEAL perspective, if you will: stories from the sea, air, and land.
This sea story is of one Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), who owns a recreational boat but decides to captain it himself, bringing along his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Pete's buddy George (Barry Keoghan).
During their channel navigation, they rescue a stranded, profoundly shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) hunkered atop a sinking destroyer. Problem is, when the soldier finds out they're headed back to France to pick up more men, the situation becomes unhinged.
Royal Air Force pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) is heroic and stoic in the grand aviator tradition of complete coolness under fire. When his fuel gauge is shot out, he improvises (with chalk-scribbled calculations) his fuel-supply check, then gets back to the business of being an apex hunter-killer of Nazi pilots.
It's a masterful and "mask-erful" turn. Hardy already displayed his ability to act straight through a huge mask in Nolan's "The Dark Night Rises," and here he reprises that ability by projecting a clear and subtle range of emotions from behind a pilot's oxygen mask.
He's largely silent, thereby functioning as our emotional avatar, putting us right in the action through his eyes and ears, representing the men on the ground.
Tommy is his squadron's sole survivor. He races through swarms of bullets while fleeing the town of Dunkirk, to the mole, where he eventually ends up within earshot of a British commander (Kenneth Branagh) in conversation, explaining why English help may not be ultimately forthcoming.
No Words Can Describe ItIt's all action, few words, and real basic. The emotional mule-kick of this movie lies in the timing, pacing, and above all, the sound effects and soundtrack, courtesy of world-class film composer Hans Zimmer.
Zimmer captures the sound of a droning warplane engine, then reproduces it as an instrument unto itself—notes of warplane; fugue by Messerschmitt, if you will. The realism of gunfire sound went up a notch with 1995's "Heat," but Nolan takes rifle-round concussive vehemence, not to mention bombs tearing up the beach, to a new level.
The continuously escalating tension of the film has to do, in part, with recurring series of repetitive eighth notes on various instruments—for example, a pizzicato, double-stopping violin that starts slowly and increases in speed like a locomotive. It's unbelievably effective in turning up the dread-dial; it puts you right there.
In addition to this, Nolan and Zimmer add a smattering of almost horror-genre sound-effect eerieness. Just as some of the T-rex vocalizations in "Jurassic Park" had elements of human screaming, the dive-bombing planes and whistling bombs are accompanied by an earsplitting human-banshee shriek that will stand your hair on end.
A TributeIt's hard to categorize "Dunkirk." Grand piece of art? Or virtuoso nail-bite fest? It's both. While decidedly nerve-wracking and blood-pressure raising, you'll be glad you subjected yourself to the discomfort.
One does wish, at times, for a tiny bit of levity, a bit of fun in this epic tale. Even the great, gray, grim "Schindler's List" had scenes more in common with "Keystone Kops" than Greek tragedy. A smidgen of comedy only serves to underscore the tragedy more effectively.
In the end, it's Mark Rylance's Mr. Dawson who sets an example of compassion in the face of extreme violence, and who models the fact that it is the act of looking within, to find the cause of any human war, that provides hope for humanity.
Between Rylance's, Hardy's, and Branaugh's performances, heroism abounds. "Dunkirk" pays tribute to all who collectively saved the planet from Third Reich domination.
“Dunkirk” won many Oscars: Best Picture, director, cinematography, original score, film editing, sound editing, sound mixing, and production design.