Director Christopher Nolan uses all the elements: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire and immerses the audience in war, specifically WWII. Without using any computer-generated imagery, Nolan reenacts the rescue and the non-rescue of soldiers at Dunkirk.
The film, simply named “Dunkirk”, uses sound over dialogue, the mundane over the heroic, and patient waiting in constrast to spritely action. When hundreds of thousands of men and women are sitting ducks for the German war machine, we see the problem from three arenas: land, air, and sea.
The Hans Zimmer sound track is beautiful. The sounds of war totally deafening. The strings quicken the heart and create a-tonal suspense. The percussion beats repeat and terrify. We are there. Our ears are assaulted; our eyes field the battle.
Again, the elements are forceful, emotional, practical, and logical. There are 400,000 servicemen waiting for a transit miracle. Most are young. They must eat, drink, and poop. They must be lucky for screeching bombs and elementary target practice can spray more than sand.
No historical framework is given except for the place and the year, no one character moves the plot, no dialogue illuminates the scenes. We see men running with stretchers, life preservers doled out by nurses, and tea and peanut butter and jelly bread offered below deck. We learn that one stretcher takes the place of seven servicemen.
“Fish in a barrel” is another metaphor used to describe the situation found on the Dunkirk beach. Small boats are needed to ferry men to the destroyers. Mark Rylance plays the stalwart British citizen, who along with his son ( Tom Glynn-Carney ) and a neighbor boy rescue a shell-shocked pilot (Cillian Murphy) from the English Channel. Rylance and Glynn-Carney recross the Channel and carry back numerous survivors. Rylance shows the carry-on, stiff upper lip spirit like no other. Lies are told to give a weary soldier a few more hours of peace. Father and son are heroes in action and in psychology.
Here is suspense on all three fronts. Tom, played by Fionn Whitehead, is stable, moral and sound. A grounded boat becomes a hopeful vehicle for Tom and a dozen men. They just must wait until high tide carries them aloft the waves. Too much weight has a few demanding the sacrifice of others. Bullying ensues to devastating effect. Frantic swimming, flaying, and suicide, all are seen.
Tom Hardy’s realm is the cockpit. Running low on fuel, he masters the enemy and sacrifices his plane for the Allied cause.
There are successes. Kenneth Branagh is the Navy Colonel in charge. He understands that luck is in play. He organizes lines in quiet misery. Oil-soaked men are set on fire indiscriminately while others see Dorset and the White Cliffs of Dover.
Being immersed in war in a salvage operation is harrowing. Director Nolan crafts an evacuee thriller that puts viewers in the middle of a battle to retreat. Plugging holes on listing ships and cockpits filling with water are not as horrific as viewing fear in the faces of young, helmeted men. This film works as realism in a large-scale rescue operation. The cinematography is all blues, browns and grays. This French beach in the spring of 1940 will be remembered because of the faces that stood there, and Nolan who let us stand with them.