“The Dunkirk Spirit” is a phrase known to British citizens of all backgrounds and a source of pride for many. It refers to the ability to succeed under impossible circumstances. That capacity is ascribed to the British for events at the Battle of Dunkirk, which occurred at the beginning of World War II in late May and early June 1940. It was a rare set of circumstances in which ordinary citizens were needed to help rescue more than 300,000 British soldiers surrounded by enemy troops and trapped on the beach at the French town of Dunkirk.
That story is not well known in the U.S., in part because the heroics belonged solely to our allies, and also because no one has tried to tell it through an appropriately epic-scale Hollywood film. The ascent of filmmaker Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception) has made that idea not only possible but advisable. A British-American with dual citizenship, Nolan possesses what may be Hollywood’s most elusive gift — the ability to create blockbuster movies that also appear substantial.
For Dunkirk, Nolan decided the best way to tell the story was to immerse viewers in the action. From its very first scene, the film’s essential quality is intensity. A pace typically reserved for the finale of well-made action thrillers drives the entire 107-minute experience.
The film presents three interlocking stories — one each on land, sea and sky — and incorporates a variety of perspectives to tell a multifaceted tale. Finely crafted in ways that beg for viewing on the largest available screen, Dunkirk balances spectacle with human drama to give the story depth and meaning. It’s a landmark war film by any measure, and the year’s first shoo-in for major accolades come awards season.
The circumstances at Dunkirk were dire. Enemy forces surrounded the mostly British and French soldiers, and the water off the beach was too shallow to allow large ships near enough to rescue them. England is 26 miles across the English Channel. The Royal Air Force’s Spitfires worked to keep enemy planes from bombing boats on the water and troops on the shore.
In his third Nolan film, Tom Hardy plays a British fighter pilot with a knack for aerial combat; Kenneth Branagh is the British commander in charge of the unfortunate situation on the beach; and acclaimed theater artist Mark Rylance plays a mariner and private citizen among those who may be in position to save the free world.
Nolan does not let us get to know his characters in traditional war-movie style. They are defined not by dialogue, backstories or letters from home, but by their actions on screen. Shot entirely in large-format IMAX and 65mm film and edited with great skill, Dunkirk revels in visual storytelling and seems hell-bent on providing a purely cinematic experience. The aerial footage recreates the fighter pilot perspective like nothing seen before on film.
Nolan said his film is not meant to glorify war, even going so far as to point out the parallels he sees between the historic evacuation at Dunkirk and the refugee crisis unfolding across Europe today. Ordinary people helping one another for the common good of all — that is a Dunkirk Spirit for the 21st century, and one well worth exporting on a global scale.
Dunkirk opens today, July 21, at the Broad, Canal Place, Prytania, Elmwood, Clearview and West Bank theaters.