This dramatic recreation of the evacuation at Dunkirk is as epic as you’ve heard, with much to recommend it.
The movie tells the story almost completely from the perspective of the folks on the ground — the ordinary soldiers being evacuated, the Navy and civilian sailors manning the boats, and the pilots providing air cover. Other than Kenneth Branagh in the Shakespearean Chorus role of the Admiral, and the unmistakeable voice of Michael Caine on RAF radio, officers are thin on the ground. And until the very last scene, you don’t see a single German — although you certainly see their planes.
Christopher Nolan is a master at creating tension. The movie gives us a grounds-eye-view of a number of nightmare scenarios — being bombed on a beach, trapped below-deck on a ship that’s just been torpedoed, swimming in open water next to an oil slick that’s just caught fire — with a minimum of gore, which if anything makes these scenes more terrifying. And the aerial dogfight scenes are the best I’ve ever seen.
Nolan cast a number of younger, lesser-known actors as ordinary soldiers. They do very well in roles that require them to look terrified and determined in equal measure, without much dialogue.
Mark Rylance stands out as the captain of a private vessel who participates in the evacuation. A local movie reviewer thinks that Rylance is overrated as an actor — that all he does is stand around and look stoic. Maybe so. But nobody can suggest an entire worldview with a raised eyebrow or a slight tilt of the head like Rylance can. In this movie, he is really British Everyman — a member of a generation that fought in the War to End All Wars, about to send their sons to another one. I loved every scene he was in.
You may have read about the odd time manipulation in this film. Nolan follows three stories — one week on the beach, one day in a rescue boat, one hour in a plane — at the same time, As a result of the fractured time sequence, you often find yourself seeing the same event two or three times, from different perspectives. In at least one case, you see events backwards — a survivor floating on wreckage is picked up before you see how he got there. It’s a bit confusing until you figure it out.
The movie barely mentions the unfathomable decision by Hitler to stop his tank offensive for three days when they had the advantage. These few days gave the Brits enough breathing space to mount a rescue expedition, and is likely why they were able to evacuate 300,000 soldiers instead of 30,000. It may well have changed the course of the war. I suspect the decision not to dwell on this is part of Nolan’s “ground-eye view” of the operation — the soldiers on the ground were probably too grateful for the silencing of the German guns to worry about why it was happening.
Some folks have complained that there weren’t enough people or boats on screen. Nolan eschewed heavy use of CB and hired 1500 extras instead. Not that long ago, the presence of so many extras would have been more than enough to suggest the evacuation of hundreds of thousands. These days, I guess, we demand more artificial realism in our movies. I suggest you dust off your imagination, and bring it with you.