In 1940, some 400,000 British troops (along with French, Canadian and Belgian soldiers) were stranded on a beach in France. The soldiers were backed into a military cul-de-sac by German forces that rapidly were moving westward. The troops had little support from the air or the sea. On this lonely stretch of beach in northern France, they were strafed by German planes. Their only way out was to be transported back across the English Channel.
That's the backdrop for Dunkirk, the latest, and perhaps most masterful, film from director Christopher Nolan (Interstellar, The Dark Night Rises and Inception).
Watching Dunkirk, I kept recalling a long ago conversation I had with a World War II veteran who worked at the Rocky Mountain News. We were having coffee in a room behind what was called "the backshop," the place where the printers worked when newspapers still employed printers. I was telling him about some war movie I'd seen.
"You know what war is?'' he asked.
"What?" I responded, readily conceding that his knowledge of the subject was far greater than mine since he had served with Patton's Third Army in France and Germany. For him, war wasn't a movie.
"Fear. Nothing else," he replied.
It's too early to determine whether Dunkirk is a great war movie, but I believe Nolan got one thing right. He conveys the fear of men who, minus air support or ships to transport them off the beach, became targets. The term "sitting ducks" seldom has been more appropriately employed.
Nolan uses all of his considerable cinematic skills to make us feel the explosive force of bombs, the startling eruption of bullets or the vulnerability of the few British pilots who made their way to Dunkirk in planes that, by today's standards, seem like little more than flying crates.
Nolan divides his story into several related parts. In the first, a British soldier (Fionn Whitehead) escapes German gunfire that wipes out all his fellow soldiers on the streets of Dunkirk. He arrives on the beach, where thousands of British soldiers have assembled.
He and another soldier (Aneurin Barnard) carry a wounded soldier to a Red Cross rescue ship. They race through masses of soldiers carrying a stretcher toward the pier where the boat has docked. Their motives have a double edge. They want to board the ship themselves.
The officers on the beach are played by Kenneth Branagh (Navy) and James D'Arcy (Army). The soldiers await help, but Branagh's character knows that the British command wants to preserve its destroyers for later battles. Prospects for rescue are dim.
Another story focuses on a British civilian (Mark Rylance) who decides to sail his private boat to Dunkirk to help rescue the stranded soldiers. He's accompanied by his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a local teenager (Barry Keoghan).
On their way to Dunkirk, this civilian crew saves a stranded soldier (Cillian Murphy) whose ship was sunk by a German torpedo. Cillian's shell shocked soldier wants Rylance's character to turn his boat around. He doesn't want to return to the nightmare he just left.
If you see the film in an IMAX theater with the sound cranked, you'll feel every shock and rumble -- many of them enhanced by Hans Zimmer's score, a pounding affair that rises like an adrenalized pulse. It's the musical equivalent of writing in all capital letters: DREAD. FEAR. PANIC.
Nolan's third story deals with the air war. Tom Hardy files a RAF Spitfire. Hardy's character -- his face mostly obscured by the mask that supplies him with oxygen -- engages in dogfights with German planes. These dizzying air battles rank among the best ever filmed. (Nolan shot his film with IMAX cameras on 65 mm film; he puts us in the cockpit with Hardy in ways that are disorienting and, of course, frightening.)
It's difficult to imagine that cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema won't win an Oscar for his stunning work here.
Nolan shifts between all these stories in an effort to provide an encompassing view of Dunkirk. Individual stories are subordinated to the creation of an overall feeling of war chaos.
We can assume things about the characters from their behavior -- Rylance's steadfastness, Branagh's leadership, Whitehead's "ordinary-Joe" qualities, but Nolan leaves most of that work to us.
In some respects, the movie's heroism belongs mainly to its civilians. As it turns out, a small armada of private boats traveled to Dunkirk to rescue the stranded soldiers. It was a stirring moment of British unity that defined the pluck and spirit of a united people facing terrible duress. To portray it, Nolan mostly dispenses with dialogue.
If I have a beef with Dunkirk, it's this: Nolan's movie consists almost entirely of climaxes, the kind of scenes that other war movies build toward. And once, the chaos subsides, Nolan doesn't seem to know what to do. Scale overwhelms everything in ways that make sense if you acknowledge that Nolan's aim is to make us feel as if we, too, are on that beach.
That's part of the point, I think, to make us understand that once the fighting starts, thoughts about patriotism tend to give way to the urge simply to survive.
Nolan has made a movie full of fear and frenzy. It's impressive for sure but sensation-oriented films tend to fade once the sensation stops.
Judging by the inescapable sadness in the eyes of the veteran I mentioned earlier, that's not the case for those whose wars weren't fought at the movies.