Film & TV

Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Dunkirk’: Christopher Nolan’s Masterpiece on War

BY Mark Jackson TIMEAugust 1, 2022 PRINT

PG-13 | 1h 46m | Action, Drama, History | July 21, 2017

“Dunkirk” goes on the same shelf with “Apocalypse Now,” “Platoon,” “Saving Private Ryan,” and “Braveheart.” The only difference is that those four premiere war movies contain brief flashes of levity and even fun, whereas “Dunkirk” is one long, sustained note of grim melancholy. This is not to warn you off—Christopher Nolan’s tour de force film was a must-see, a 2017 summer blockbuster, and definitely one of the best war movies ever made. You just can’t really call it entertainment, per se.

men in water and fire in DUNKIRK
One of the many horrors of war, when the water burns, in “Dunkirk.” (Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

Should a war movie entertain? “Dunkirk” was more about being utterly transported (especially by the IMAX version) into a dire situation, and understanding viscerally why war is hell. This is accomplished with almost no gore or excessive violence—but there is a massive sense of dread. A transcendent, excellent dread. You’ll come away feeling you learned something, or at least experienced something real, if partially fictional.

A Rock and a Hard Place

It’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.

Stranded soldiers in a scene from the Warner Bros. Pictures action thriller "Dunkirk,
Stranded soldiers in the action-thriller “Dunkirk.” (Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

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.

soldiers in the street in DUNKIRK
Terrifying pamphlets rain from the sky in “Dunkirk.” (Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

The tale is told from three different perspectives—a SEAL perspective, if you will: stories from the sea, air, and land.

Sea: The British military requisitioned civilian boats to make the channel-crossing day-trip to France, pack them to the gills with soldiers, and hightail it home. The Battle of Britain was next on the Nazi agenda, after all.

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).

Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson in the Warner Bros. Pictures action thriller "Dunkirk,
Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) in “Dunkirk.” (Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

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.

Air: Three British Spitfire pilots, flying in tight formation across the channel, engaging Nazi Messerschmitts in some of the best aerial dogfight scenes (albeit propeller-driven and subsonic) since “Top Gun.”

British warplanes and civilian boats to the rescue in a scene from the Warner Bros. Pictures action thriller "Dunkirk,
British warplanes and civilian boats to the rescue, in “Dunkirk.” (Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

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.

Tom Hardy as Spitfire pilot Farrier in the Warner Bros. Pictures action thriller "Dunkirk,
Spitfire pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) in “Dunkirk.” (Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

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.

Land: Newcomer Fionn Whitehead plays British army private Tommy (a nice wordplay on his name—British soldiers were known as “Tommy”).

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.

 Fionn Whitehead as Tommy, running for his life in the Warner Bros. Pictures action thriller "Dunkirk,
Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) running for his life in “Dunkirk.” (Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

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.

Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton in the Warner Bros. Pictures action thriller "Dunkirk,
Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) in “Dunkirk.” (Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

No Words Can Describe It

It’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.

(L–R) Harry Styles as Alex, Aneurin Barnard as Gibson and Fionn Whitehead as Tommy in the Warner Bros. Pictures action thriller "Dunkirk,
(L–R) Alex (Harry Styles), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) in “Dunkirk.”(Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

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.

plane floating in water in DUNKIRK
A downed pilot in the action thriller “Dunkirk.” (Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

A Tribute

It’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.

Movie poster for "Dunkirk."
Movie poster for “Dunkirk.”

Film Review: ‘Dunkirk’
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Harry Styles
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Release Date: July 21
Rated 4.5 stars out of 5

Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years' experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.
You May Also Like