I just returned from watching Dunkirk with my eldest. I refrained from reading any reviews of it in advance, just so I could form my own opinion. Spoilers ahead, so be warned.
Actual photo of the beach at Dunkirk
The film is somewhat disorienting to watch. You are following 4 different stories, set at different paces, as they all race towards their intersection. The stories all begin at the start of the film, but one is set over a blurred week of attempted escapes, one picks up in the middle of the first, one a day before, and one begins a mere hour before the climax (the film informs you of this time difference in captions – 1 week, 1 day, 1 hour). The stories all intersect at last in the arrival of the first small craft from the UK at Dunkirk, and mostly run contiguous until the end.
The dialog is spartan. Aside from the few captions at the beginning, there is little in the way of exposition. The first story follows the lone survivor of a British patrol in Dunkirk who, having lost his entire unit (perhaps one of the doomed units who held the perimeter against the German advance), tries to find a way, any way, onto one of the transports. He is not a noble figure, perhaps he is even a coward. His repeated and often dishonest attempts to line-jump and board a transport spell doom at every turn until very near the end – one wonders if Nolan was punishing him from above, serving him up (or perhaps a companion of his) as a Jonah figure to every escape attempt.
The second story follows the admiral (played by Kenneth Branagh) who comes ashore to direct operations, and who stayed with the soldiers until the very end. What little exposition there is comes through his conversations with a BEF colonel.
The third story is of the owner of a small pleasure craft, his son, and friend of his son’s, who answer the call to sail to Dunkirk and assist. The film shows the very real dangers these small craft faced as they neared the war zone. The father, likely a WWI veteran, knows the stakes involved as he faces the dangers ahead.
The final storyline centers on an RAF squadron sent to protect the shipping. The pilots encounter several Luftwaffe patrols and bomber escorts, and the film does quite well in showing the very uncertain and chaotic nature of aerial combat. Theirs is the one story told (with breaks to the other story lines) essentially in real time as we near the climax. The dogfights are a confusion of missed shots, uncertain hits, and battles with their own equipment as they attempt to protect and save the troop laden ships below.
This is an exhausting movie to watch, and while it certainly ends with some of the characters you’ve been following actually making it back, with them rolling into a sunny English train station to cheers and adulation, after nearly 2 hours of hours of tension, explosions, drownings, near drownings, torpedoings, dive bombings, dog fights, betrayals, and cold cold water, the return home is disorienting and jarring. I rather think director Christopher Nolan did this deliberately. Having read accounts by evacuees, including the war memoirs of General Alanbrooke, the British General who led the BEF evacuation, they often describe the sheer mental assault of trying to survive in that doomed collapsing pocket, and the utter disorientation upon their return home. Over there was death closing in on all sides, at home were sunny skies and a land not yet ravaged by bombings and assault. One walks out of the theater in a similar, if of course much smaller daze. The relief at surviving is palpable, bittersweet, and hollow. The film does end with a soldier reading Churchill’s evacuation speech, but the end is not hopeful. You have survived, and that is about all you can say of the matter. This is no victory, there is no triumph, only survival. And not all the survivors were heroic.