Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is a masterpiece and one of the best World War II films of all time. It’s a real-life story about 300,000 British troops evacuating a beach in Nazi-occupied Dunkirk, France to return to Great Britain. The 77-year-old epic rescue mission could easily be one of this year’s Best Picture nominees and win many awards.
The film has three storylines: a perspective from the land, the sea and the sky, beautifully interwoven stories moving at a different pace from one week to a day to an hour, respectively.
On the beach there’s a young, disheveled soldier played by Fionn Whitehead who has been dodging heavy machine gun fire and trying to catch a ride home without dying. There’s a middle-aged civilian, played by Mark Rylance, steering a pleasure yacht down the English Channel with his son and his son’s mate. In the sky, you have two Spitfire pilots, played by Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden, who shoot down enemies while running low on fuel.
The project has Nolan’s fingerprints all over it with time-bending elements from “Inception” and puzzles that feel similar to “Memento.” The intense music from Hans Zimmer gives the film a psychological-thriller type of vibe. The film will probably receive a nod for Best Original Screenplay and Best Original Score.
The 70mm visuals will make you feel like you’re in the movie, but there are no images of Adolf Hitler or Winston Churchill; you never hear the word “Nazi” or “German,” and there’s no soldier looking at a picture of his fiancé. In other words, this isn’t your regular war movie. There’s no blood, no cursing, less character development and few pieces of dialogue. But even though “language is a metaphor for experience” and silence has become rare in a noisy world full of people shouting to be heard, we all know unnecessary talk can rob a film of its life force.
Instead, “Dunkirk” focuses on survival, death, and the morality and power of war with simple, classic shots that place traumatic events under a magnifying glass. The film emphasizes collective purpose, national unity, and the how convincing stories can push people to cooperate and achieve goals. Many of the scenes show men practicing courage and patience and mastering their emotions as they make life or death decisions, reminding us that humility is a powerful force for survival and how easily false ideas about yourself or your surroundings can get you killed. That same part of the movie reminded me of the first few lines in a poem by Rumi called The Guest House:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes As an unexpected visitor.
In a way, “Dunkirk” is about the human capacity for courage and rising to high places despite a million obstacles. And even though a movie can’t capture the drama of war as well as history books, Christopher Nolan knows how to use this medium to make us transformed, resilient human beings.
The film shows us the meaning of our existence in a different light and makes us remember people like Viktor Frankl, the Austrian doctor and Holocaust survivor who said, “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.” Frankl says life isn’t complete without death and suffering, but he decides to focus on getting beyond terrible circumstances and going about life “as if you’re living for the second time.”