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Dunkirk – Unconventional Storytelling that Works


In the US, I don’t think the events of Dunkirk are very well known. Before this film I’ve never even heard of Dunkirk, much less what took place there. The only time I can recall hearing anything about it was when I was watching that horrible Doctor Who spinoff series Class. While in “class” they were discussing what took place.

From what I recall, the events of Dunkirk took place over 9 days. Both British and French troops are trapped on both fronts. German soldiers advancing by land and blocking off their ships by sea.

The British and French troops were stuck, waiting for their doom.

Instead of telling this story in a conventional way like say Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge, Dunkirk was deliberately done in an untraditional fashion, doing the complete opposite of those films. Preferring to tell the story without characters, much of it without dialogue, and a story structure that would break most traditional films. But somehow it all works.

Dunkirk is a masterwork of filmmaking. Featuring some of the best cinematography you’ll see in theaters right now. There are shots in this that could and should be framed, hung as an art piece. Not only does it look stunning, the foley sound work in this is the reason why they hand out Oscars to the sound mixers and sound editors. Every bomb drop, gunshot, plane pass, everything has a realistic weight to it.

When a gun goes off, you feel it. Many times I found myself jumping whenever a bullet just ricochets.

Right away you are dropped into it. There is no setup, not explanations, you are just in it. Technically there are some “main” characters, though calling them that doesn’t seem accurate. They’re just people we follow.

The first being a young British soldier, who I never caught the name of. Thankfully I have the movie’s imdb page to look up who played what.

The British soldier “Tommy” is desperately looking for a place to take a shit. He and a few other soldiers are walking through the empty streets, looking for food, water, smokes and in Tommy’s case, a place to cop a squat.

As he readies himself, his group is quickly cut down by German soldiers. Soldiers by the way we never see. Another interesting stylistic choice about this film is you never see the enemy, not once. The only thing you see are their fighter planes, but never the pilots themselves.

When Tommy flees, he manages to make it to the beach where his fellow soldiers rest, waiting to leave the island. While needing to finish that dump, he bumps into a soldier burying another. The two silently bond, both wanting the hell off this death island. An island now getting bombarded by passing German war planes.

Tommy and his mate spot that the wounded are the only ones making it off the island by ship, so the two grab an injured soldier and run him to the only departing ship, hoping they can sneak aboard.

They manage to get the injured soldier on but they themselves are quickly kicked off. Thankfully Tommy’s silent friend has found another way onboard, slipping under the docks.

Before they can sneak back on to the ship, another German plane passes over, dropping a bomb on the medic ship, sinking it.

Tommy dunks himself in the water, making it seem he was with the crew on the ship.

Here is where the story structure starts to bend and fold. As this is going on, we cut between two other “characters”. Tom Hardy is a fighter pilot, trying his best to take out the German bombers before they lay waste to the ships carrying soldiers. Again in another interesting move, Tom Hardy is filmed almost entirely with a mask covering his face.

The other focus is on an old man, his son and his friend. They’re civilians but have been tasked by the navy to sail to Dunkirk and rescue the stranded soldiers. Not wanting to be acquisitioned by the army, Mr. Dawson as he’s called, takes the boat out himself.

Along the way they run into Cillian Murphy as he sits on top a sinking ship. He’s a shell shocked soldier not wanting to return to Dunkirk. He fights with one of the younger boys on the ship, accidently killing him. Not wanting to turn back, Mr. Dawson goes forth.

Things start to get schwifty…

…as the three stories being told are all at different timelines. You only start to really suspect this once Tommy, the British soldier’s story gets told at night while Tom Hardy and Mr. Dawson’s stories are still taking place during the day.

I figured out Westworld’s timeline beforehand, so deciphering this was a cake walk. Which I just discovered was an old-time 19th century dance craze.

Tommy and his silent friend get onboard another ship, where they are fed bread with jelly on it. Is that a thing in England? Just a piece of white bread with a giant slab of jam on it? It’s like they invented half a PB & J but could never figure out the whole peanut butter situation so they said fuck it and just gave them jelly. It’s like the Russians not knowing how to make absinth, so they just added vodka to green aftershave. True story, look it up.

Anyway, back to the story at hand. As Tommy is enjoying his bread jam, a torpedo slams into the side of the ship, sinking it.

He and a few others manage to get out, but once again they’re stranded on this island, an island seeming more and more impossible to escape from.

Meanwhile in a different timeline, Tom Hardy and two other British pilots are protecting the seas, trying to stop any German planes from bombing their ships. They managed to take a few out but their third plane was shot down. Now Hardy’s fuel gauge is on the fritz, not showing how much fuel he has left. Not a good thing when in a dog fight with another plane.

Hardy’s partner gets shot down, but safely lands in the ocean. Luckily, Mr. Dawson is there witnessing the whole thing and helps the pilot out before he sinks.

Tommy, now waterlogged, joins up with another group looking to get off the island by hiding in a fishing boat, waiting for the tide to come in and swift them off to sea. But as they lay waiting, German soldiers decide to take potshots at the boat, not knowing anyone is inside. So now they’re all stuck in a ship getting filled with bullets and water as the tide comes in. It’s a pretty intense moment. But that’s the whole film, just this butt clinching intense movie, dreading the next time anyone goes back into the water.

At one point a soldier has just had enough and walks out into the sea, I guess to die. The real enemy in this movie is the water. Each time someone steps into it, it usually spells their doom.

As their fishing boat drifts off to sea, we are treated to more Tom Hardy. I really loved all the fighter plane scenes. Like I mentioned before, when a plane gets hit, you feel it. When a plane crashes into the sea you celebrate, mainly because that means Hardy just killed himself another Nazi. And the opposite reaction happens whenever Tom’s plane takes a hit.

Everything is just so realistic, down to every detail. My showing had a big older crowd. Old enough to have actually lived through World War 2. I was fully expecting at least one of them to leave traumatically scarred, having to relive similar events.

Tom Hardy is running low on fuel and is out numbered. There’s a bomber headed right for a ship carrying with it hundreds of soldiers. As good of a pilot as he is, he isn’t able to stop the ship from getting bombed.

Mr. Dawson is there with his leisure boat, helping as many out of the sea as he can. The bombed ship is leaking oil, covering the surface of the water and soldiers in a black sludge. Mixed into this mess is Tommy who tried to escape in the fishing boat. It too is sinking.

Tommy makes it to safety but his silent friend isn’t so lucky.

Tom Hardy pays the German plane back, shooting it out of the sky. But the crash ignites the oil and sets the water ablaze. All they needed were some sharks and they would have had the trifecta.

Mr. Dawson is able to get as many as he could aboard before even more acquisitioned civilian ships arrive to save the day.

Tom Hardy isn’t done yet. He flies his plane, or more like glides his plane, seeing as at this point he has no more fuel and the plane is kind of just drifting. He drifts to the shores of Dunkirk, where he saves a departing ship from getting bombed, blasting the Germans out of the sky.

Is this Christopher Nolan’s best film? I don’t know, from a technical stand point yes. It’s the work of a master craftsman. He makes a lot of interesting story and character choices, some I think might throw people off. Also, I still don’t think I left knowing that much about Dunkirk, seeing as I keep calling it an island, which I don’t think it is. They’ve just been pushed back so far to the shoreline that it might as well be an island.

I can’t really compare this to any other war film. It wasn’t character heavy like Saving Private Ryan or as violent as Hacksaw Ridge. The film seemed to care more about the situation than the people. And that’s kind of fascinating. What also surprised me was the short runtime. Only clocking in at an hour and 40 minutes. Unlike just about every war film these days running past 2 hours and 30 minutes. That’s even including War for the Planet of the Apes.

It made you care about these character despite the fact they barely speak or you remember their names. It gave you this unnerving feeling of dread and tension without giving you body parts flying at the screen. It gave us character motivation without the characters really saying much to each other. And goddamn is it worth seeing at the theater. You almost need to to get the full effect. I can’t recommend this one enough. Take your grandpa if you still have one. He’ll either thank you or have to be wheeled out on a gurney. Either way you might get something in their Will.

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