It was about two-thirds of the way through the film, but the words above were spoken by troops trapped in a grounded boat were the real main point of the film. Yes, there is the story of the British and French soldiers and sailors stuck between the Atlantic Ocean and an enemy who we never see their faces. Of citizens looking to provide a way home. Of bravery at its finest.
But the real story is how survival isn’t fair, especially in fighting like that seen in World War II. As almost the antithesis of modern day warfare. Today’s battles are full of snipers and drone strikes – things that target an individual or small group by another individual or small group. The fighting in World War II was akin to using a fire hose to put out a candle. Newly advanced weaponry like machine guns of the day killed without care for rank, age, or nationality. This all happened while Christopher Nolan showed how terrifying those weapons were without ever showing us how gruesome the effects, as we have grown somewhat accustomed to via Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers. Even without an ‘R’ rating, the story was clear – if you made it off that beach, a fair amount of luck played into your survival. That was Dunkirk.
And it was amazingly well put together. You don’t want to blink too much in the first few minutes of the movie or you’ll miss the introduction of the story’s fractured timeline. You would catch on eventually, but not without asking once or twice, “didn’t we just see that ten minutes ago?” Slowly, all three stories of land, air, and sea blend together… slowly, and yet it comes at a seemingly break neck pace emotionally. It is a relatively short movie at about an hour and fifty minutes, but it never felt like that. I thought barely an hour had gone by when I started to hear the triumphant victory music that contrasted the majority of the film’s score by Hans Zimmer. The score mainly used cues to remind you of how time was passing, and every second counted as the Germans closed in on the vulnerable troops. Be it the sound of a stopwatch ticking, or the staccato notes the string section played, the movie took off from the moment it started and never let off the gas pedal. I’m stuck trying to remember if the intense music ever stopped, because I don’t believe it ever did in over an hour and a half.
Nolan’s use of custom-made camera rigs to allow for the use of 70MM filming made simple scenes like the sighting of a Spitfire as Tom Hardy chased another German fighter or bomber seem out of this world. Similarly, seeing the wide shots of British and French soldiers on the beaches were breathtaking in their endlessness – somehow captivating how there were actually 400,000 troops there one day a hundred years ago. Nolan’s story is good, but the composition of this movie turns it into a great film.
A conversation struck up after the movie between Los Angeles’ veterans’ charity Team Push Up and members of IAVA revealed one thing that many tough Army folks won’t admit – we tipped our cap to the Navy veterans among us. We may be grunts and dirt kickers (and finally beat Navy in football this year), but we’ll happily take that over living through some of the scenes on any number of the sinking ships Nolan captured in this masterpiece.