Tick, tick, tick, tick. 400,000 men stranded on the shore. Home is within sight, but the enemy surrounds them and is closing in. Tick, tick, tick, tick. An ordinary man, his son, and their friend sail into war simply because they have a boat, and there are men who desperately need him and many others like him to bring them home, before it’s too late. Tick, tick, tick, tick. Three brave pilots, all that can be spared because sometimes you need to save your strength for the next battle when the current battle is lost, fly across the sea to protect their comrades from the air; but they only have so much fuel, and their comrades on the beach only have so much time. Tick, tick, tick, tick. Dunkirk counts down with these three separate views to the same event; Great Britain’s heroic effort to bring home their troops after a devastating loss in the early stages of WWII. It’s a riveting, tense, sumptuous feast for the senses and an utterly unique war film in how it accomplishes so much more with so little. Dunkirk is a cinematic experience not to be missed.
Very little is said during this movie. There are no conversations amongst soldiers about what they’ll do once they get home, who they used to be, or where they come from. In fact, so many of the usual elements of “what makes a great war film” are missing here. No grand speeches, no big battles, no easily distinguishable characters in a squad (the funny one, the sharpshooter, the gung-ho one, the commander with a heart of gold), no glorified moments of bold heroics, and no graphic display of the horrors of war. Instead we get a film where words are few, the battle that’s fought is a battle for survival, and the heroics are the simple, selfless acts of countrymen bringing their soldiers home to safety, snatching them from the jaws of death and defeat so they can fight another day. Yet, while it may not do things exactly the same way most war films do, make no mistake, Dunkirk is easily as intense, riveting, terrifying, and thrilling as anything in films like Saving Private Ryan.
What Dunkirk lacks in lengthy dialogue it more than makes up for with spectacular visuals and bone-rattling sound design that tells a story more ably than words ever could. We see the terror and desperation of these stranded soldiers etched on their faces and through the great lengths they go to in order to find a way off that beach. We hear the terrors of war with every sharp crack of a bullet, the groaning and screeching of sinking ships, and the screeches of dive bombing, dogfighting planes. All of that is amplified by an intense score from Hans Zimmer that doesn’t so much provide background music as a background sound of enhanced intensity, all underlaid by an incessantly ticking clock that constantly reminds you that time for everyone is quickly running out. Christopher Nolan gives a masters class in how to use the cinematic canvass to tell a story through carefully constructed visual enhanced by tension building sound.
There’s also plenty to ruminate about in Dunkirk as well. War always presents tough questions for us to ponder, even in defeat. In Dunkirk soldiers struggle with feeling like they’ve let their home country down as they return in defeat (a sentiment not shared by its citizens). They also struggle with survival, and what that survival might cost. In one of the few exchanges of dialogue, several young soldiers discuss what the price of survival is, and whether the life of one man is worth the cost if it means the survival of several. In the case of eternity, God has answered that question rather definitively. God declared that the lives of the many were worth the sacrifice of one, but not just any one. God’s own son, Jesus Christ, took our place and died for us so that we might survive (John 3:16, 1 Peter 2:24, 1 John 4:9). However, God didn’t just want us to merely survive, he wanted us to thrive. Jesus came not just to help us barely escape sin and death, but so that we might know what it means to live. Jesus declared, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) The point being we don’t have to just survive, we can truly thrive through the precious gift of God’s grace made freely available to all through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The only question is; do you want to really live?
Dunkirk is a very different kind of war film. It’s minimalist, restrained, and perhaps even understated in places where it could have been much more dramatic. However, it’s also tense, riveting, and thoroughly engaging. It pulls you in and never lets go, and it isn’t until well after the film is over that you realize you didn’t really know any of the characters, or could even name any of them, but you were no less concerned and caught up in their struggle for survival. It’s a beautiful film to see and a veritable cacophony of sound to hear, all masterful manipulated to tell an intense and emotional story with a minimal amount of exposition. Perhaps it’s the fact that this film is so different from the usual summer fare that makes it resonate so strongly. Perhaps it’s the story of how even in the darkness of defeat and despair the light of heroism and hope can pierce through; of how sometimes just surviving really is enough in order to be ready for the next battle. Perhaps it’s the haunting beauty of what’s on the screen, or the understated, almost anti-climactic ending leaves you feeling somehow simultaneously drained and yet inspired. Whatever it may, Dunkirk is a cinematic experience that is not to be missed. It is a film lovingly made to be viewed and experienced in a way that reminds of why going to the movies can be so special. And yes, if you are near an IMAX theater, it’s worth the extra coin to experience on the biggest possible canvass.
Score: 6 of 7 – Dunkirk doesn’t have much of any blood (surprising for a war film), little if any language (also surprising for a war film), but don’t be fooled by that. It’s no less tense, gritty, and grim despite those absences. Probably not a film the younger set would enjoy or have the patience for. However, with that in mind, it’s a film experience that shouldn’t be missed in theaters, especially IMAX.