Movie Review: Dunkirk

It’s that time of year again. The Academy Awards is fast approaching. And with its arrival, I enjoy a tradition that I have observed for five years. I watch each of the Best Picture nominated films. My desire this year was to view all of the films before the award show, which airs March 4. Although my local theater brought in the majority of the nominated films, for one or two weeks, it was unfortunately during icy weather. I made it to see The Shape of Water. Dunkirk is so far the only film currently available to rent. I watched it tonight via Amazon Prime.

Dunkirk stars Kenneth Branagh, Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, Tom Hardy, Tom Glenn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Cillian Murphy and James D’Arcy. This historical drama, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, is rated PG-13 for war scenes and mild language, and has a run time of 1 hour and 46 minutes. Dunkirk is nominated for 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Original Musical Score.

This film depicts the true story of the evacuation of allied forces trapped on Dunkirk Beach in France, during WWII. Approximately 400,000 French and British men have been driven to the sea where they await rescue by Destroyers. The situation is exceedingly grim, as German aircraft pelt the beach with gunfire and bomb the few big vessels that make it to the beach. Many of the injured who are evacuated first end up perishing in the sea after their rescuers are hit.

The story is told through four perspectives. We follow young Tommy (Whitehead), a soldier trapped on the beach who forms alliances with other groups as they all seek a way off the beach, two RAF fighter pilots, Farrier (Hardy) and Collins (Lowden), Commander Bolton (Branagh) and his right hand man Colonel Winnant (D’Arcy), and a group of civilians on a small vessel, Mr. Dawson (Rylance), his son Peter (Glenn-Carney) and Peter’s friend George (Keoghan).

Hope appears to be lost, as the men stand in long lines peering toward the horizon. The large Destroyers are being picked off before they arrive or bombed as they depart, spilling men and oil into the choppy sea. Commander Bolton knows with a sinking heart that his troops are too exposed on the beach, and that they must get as many men home as possible to protect England. He fears that if they fall at Dunkirk, England will fall next.

Newly elected Winston Churchill puts out a plea for small vessels to cross the channel and bring the stranded men home. More than 800 fishing boats, yachts, leisure craft and small boats set out on the rescue mission. Mr. Dawson, having already lost a son in the war, captains his small boat, Moonstone, himself, with the assistance of his younger son Peter and seventeen year old George, who fears he will never do anything important with his life. Their bravery and compassion compels them to rescue a soldier on the hull of a boat who is suffering from trauma (Murphy) and fighter pilot Collins when his plane crashes into the sea.

The other pilot, Farrier, becomes pivotal to defending men caught on the beach and protecting those fleeing by boat. Tommy struggles to get off the beach. His first two attempts to leave, aboard a Destroyer and then a small Scottish vessel, are both thwarted by enemy fire. He is at last picked up by the Moonstone, just as a downed German plane sets the oil covered sea aflame.

Dunkirk’s movie subtitle is so appropriate. 400,000 men couldn’t get home, so home came for them. Ultimately, 338,226 men were successfully evacuated.

War movies are not high on my list of favorite genres. And yet, invariably, each year there is a film depicting war on the list of Best Picture nominated films. I typically watch them first, to get them out of the way. I am grateful that I made a pact with myself to watch every movie on the list, in spite of my perceptions or personal preferences. Because…I would have missed some excellent films otherwise.

Dunkirk is no exception. I found it to be a compelling watch, full of hope and courage. As war films go, this one is not overly violent. It is instead, tense and dramatic. The musical score is wonderful and helps to keep the storyline taut.

My heart clenched over the despair in the situation. The trapped men were portrayed as being so young. My eldest grandson is 18, the age of many these soldiers, and I can’t imagine the agony of having him in battle. How truly incredible that help came from home. What astounding bravery and determination those civilians had. Without them the war might have gone differently.

I noted with interest the reactions of the rescued troops as they arrived home by boat and then train. This morning I spent time writing on the subject of shame. The young men were so grateful to get home. And yet, they expected to be jeered and spit upon when they returned. They felt like they had failed their country in having to be rescued. They felt shame. “Wars are not won by evacuation”, Tommy laments.

But the crowds welcome the men home, with expressions of gratitude. And Churchill himself praises the evacuation. I like that the story ends on a high note. Dunkirk is a cheer worthy movie, made all the more poignant in knowing it actually happened and was a turning point, historically. As a result, I made a promise to myself tonight that I will never complain again about watching a war movie, especially one nominated for an Oscar.