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'Dunkirk' a War Film Like No Other

Jul. 18, 2017
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The much-circulated line about “snatching victory from the jaws of defeat” could have been coined to describe Dunkirk. The 1940 evacuation from the French coastal town saved nearly 350,000 British, French and other Allied troops from German captivity. Confident in the superiority of its air force, the Nazis surrounded the retreating Allies at Dunkirk and expected to bomb them into destruction or submission. Instead, they were given a lesson in British ingenuity and fortitude—and the improbability of winning a war from the air alone.


Fionn Whitehead

Tom Glynn-Carney

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Rated PG-13

With Dunkirk, British writer-director Christopher Nolan turns away from the form and content that had preoccupied him in recent years. In contrast to the special-effects sprawl and global comic book themes of the Dark Knight trilogy, he embraces an inspiring episode from his nation’s history, skillfully condensing it in less than two hours. 

Dunkirk is a World War II movie unlike any other. We see no generals huddled around maps plotting strategy; there are no sentimental Steven Spielberg conversations amongst the troops at the fireside as the enemy closes in. There is no strategy beyond figuring out survival and not much talk beyond “bloody hell!” Except for a brief blur at the end, the Germans are invisible, apparent only for the markings on the planes they fly: the Stuka dive bombers, shrieking as they descend; lumbering Heinkel bombers circling like vultures; the Messerschmitt fighters engaging not in dogfights with the handful of British flyers who sally forth, but in deadly aerial ballet. 

Land, sea and air: Nolan tells his story in three panels, flipping back and forth through seamless editing. The British and French forces maintain remarkable discipline on the beach, waiting with uncertainty for what will come next and ducking as German warplanes swoop upon them. The British pilots crammed into tight cockpits are few in number but determined to shoot down as many Germans as ammunition and fuel will allow. The sea story is most remarkable as the British people rallied to save their endangered army. Civilian craft by the hundreds crossed the choppy English Channel, evacuating the troops from the beach as Nazi planes buzzed overhead—fishing boats, sailing yachts, tugs, scows, dinghies.

Although Dunkirk’s cast includes familiar faces such as Tom Glynn-Carney, James D’Arcy and Kenneth Branagh, the story is the star, not the actors. The bravery is collective as well as individual. Nolan’s decision to shoot Dunkirk on IMAX 65mm film stock provides a richly immersive experience whose drama is heightened by his use of period airplanes and boats, thousands of extras and minimal deployment of computers. It’s a story about one of history’s turning points—failure at Dunkirk might have led to a Nazi victory in World War II—and a movie to be seen on the biggest screen possible.


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