My experience watching Dunkirk can be described as follows:
- I’ve arrived at the beach tired, hungry, and thirsty. My eyes scan the shoreline filled with thousands of British, Belgium, and French soldiers lined up for evacuation. The beach is strewn with abandoned supplies of ammunition, field and anti-aircraft guns, and vehicles.
- German aircraft fly over my head and drop bombs one after one in the sand. I duck for cover, bury my head. When it’s over, I’m alive but covered with debris and surrounded by dead bodies.
- I’ve flown in the cockpit of a Spitfire, getting dizzy while it zoomed around in the sky.
- I’ve engaged in aircraft dogfights with the Germans, flying over the Straits of Dover.
- I’ve crashed my plane into the ocean and felt the desperation of attempting to survive.
- I’ve climbed into naval ships that I thought would take me home only to find out they were my doom as I sank into the cold, dark waters.
- I’ve been torpedoed.
- I’ve nearly drowned multiple times.
- I’ve been shot at by German bullets.
- I’ve been sea sick from crossing the choppy waters in a small vessel.
- I’ve swum in the burning oceans of oil.
- I’ve been filled with fear, horror, desperation, deceitfulness, and witnessed heroism while attempting to escape.
- And by the grace of God, I’ve survived with 300,000 others because I was rescued by a civilian in a private vessel.
Though historically Churchill called the retreat a “colossal military disaster,” Dunkirk the movie is an absolute success. It uniquely places the audience in the midst of the action, experiencing everything I’ve listed above. Though I did not see it on iMax (but I’m definitely going to do it anyway), I did watch it on the oversized curved screen at Regal known as RPX, on a lounge chair, with the floor vibrating underneath my seat and the explosions on the left and right vibrating my eardrums. By the end of the movie, I was tearfully thankful for surviving but experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder via the big screen.
The movie flips back from scene to scene focusing on three subplots that play out during different timelines. Initially, the focus is on a British soldier named Tommy who ends up at the beach as a sole survivor of a small band of British soldiers. He meets another soldier, and the two of them stick together throughout the movie, attempting to make their way home through evacuation.
The second theme focuses on Mr. Dawson, a civilian sailor, who joins the other fishing boats, pleasure crafts, and ferries who cross the channel and help rescue the stranded British army. Their story is about the journey, that includes his son and a young lad who joins them to help.
The third plot is flying above while you are crammed into the cockpit next to Tom Hardy (frankly no complaint there), while three planes attempt to shoot down the Germans dropping bombs on the ships and shoreline below and dogfighting with the pesky other Germans attempting to thwart the British defense.
While all of this plays out, you are surrounded by fantastic music by Hams Zimmer that makes you bite your nails in some scenes, wound your soul in others, and elicit tears at the end. The characters in the movie are fictional, but the underlying story of Dunkirk is historically correct. If you want to read more about it, visit that wonderful place called Wikipedia.
Don’t expect a lot of dialogue or extended character development. Nolan has no intention of giving his audience those perks but rather an intense emotional up-front experience of war during an iconic moment in history.
In the end, Churchill’s speech is read from the newspaper by a survivor.
“We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
Dunkirk is well directed, well produced, and well acted. It is Oscar worthy and a must-see of Christopher Nolan’s extraordinary storytelling talent.