During Dunkirk’s opening sequence the audience watches as a British soldier, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), runs for his life after his troop is ambushed by German soldiers. The echoing sound of his feet on the paved streets, as bullets sail pass him, slowly begin to mimic the pulsing heartbeats growing within the viewer. It is the unrelenting tension that director Christopher Nolan introduces in these moments that becomes the blood that sustains his latest blockbusters.
Unlike any war film to come before it, which is saying a lot considering how oversaturated the genre is, Dunkirk is a film about heroism through survival. It has little interest in dissecting the strategies or motivations of the German forces. Like silent boogeymen lurking in the shadows, the German army’s presence is constantly felt despite rarely being seen onscreen. Aside from a few of the German bombers that cause terror from the skies, it is the bullets and torpedoes from unseen guns and U-boats that create paranoia for both the Allied forces and the audience.
Told through three separate story threads, and at different points in times, the film highlights the overwhelming adversity that the British forces faced in an attempt get their soldiers home. Pushed back to the beach by the German army, the British and French troops were practically sitting ducks as Churchill thought it was more important to have his destroyer ships protect England, which practically could be seen from Dunkirk, rather than send them to aid the stranded soldiers who had the odds stacked against them.
Intertwining the various threads, until the timelines converge in a thrilling way, Nolan presents a harrowing tale that is even more jaw-dropping when viewed in 70 mm. The first story, titled The Mole, takes place over the course of one week. It focuses on Tommy and fellow soldiers Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles) as they try to depart the East Mole section of the Dunkirk harbor on one of the navel boats. Under constant attack from enemy forces, and with their commanding officers, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (the always wonderful James D’Arcy) running out of tactical options, fear and distrust soon begin to set in as death inches closer with every passing minute.
The second thread, The Sea, occurs over the course of one day as the Royal Navy commandeers local fishing boats in order to use them to evacuate the men from Dunkirk. Unwilling to let others steer his boat, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) sets out with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and teenage hand George (Barry Keoghan) towards the beach. Along the way they come across a stranded soldier (Cillian Murphy) who wants nothing more to do with the horror occurring on Dunkirk.
The final tale, entitled The Air, centers around two French Spitfire pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), who are on their way to provide support to the troops at Dunkirk. As enemy planes attempting to bomb the Allied forces on land and sea, the two pilots only have one hour to assist their fellow soldiers before their vehicles run out of fuel.
Tackling such a sprawling tale in a compact running time, Nolan’s film does not provide room for deep character development. He presents just enough information so that each of the central characters are distinguishable from one another. However, what Dunkirk lacks in character depth, it more than makes up for in its technical mastery.
Visually stunning, and a master class in sustained tension, Dunkirk is a nail-biting cinematic experience from beginning to end. When viewing it in 70 mm, the audience not only gets a true sense of the scope of the film but, much like the soldiers themselves, is unable to look away at the terrifying events unfolding. Dunkirk is a film that provides new meaning to heart-stopping action. The Kubrick-eques score by Hans Zimmer only adds to the nerve-racking feeling the film constructs. It is not only one of Nolan’s best films, but it is one of the more thrilling and innovative war films you will ever see.