The Personal and Epic Experience of Nolan’s Dunkirk

There are moments in our history which are as unbelievable as they are a testament to the resilience of humanity in the face of grave danger; the Battle of Dunkirk is one of those stories that audiences are likely surprised not to have seen before. Christopher Nolan’s 2017 film, Dunkirk, is a technically masterful historical drama set during World War II. It takes the true events of the battle and evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940 and humanizes it in a way which places the viewer in the shoes of a soldier fighting just to survive.

It was shot on location at the beaches of Dunkirk in France where the actual battle took place between the Germans and the allies and separates the events into three sections: land, sea, and air. The movie may sound as if it takes on too much, as war movies tend to be larger than life, but in fact Nolan manages to narrow his camera and his focus to the experience of desolation, fear, desperation, relief, and need for survival of the British soldiers in an intimate and thorough manner.

Nolan – who has directed other acclaimed works such as Interstellar, The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, and Memento – succeeds in his ability to allow the power of the moving image to speak for itself without riddling the scene with unnecessary dialogue or overacted lines. Whether it’s the sinking of a ship, the image of a plane set aflame, or the desperation of men as they face seemingly impossible circumstances, Nolan brilliantly chooses his frames throughout the film and focuses his attention on the realistic portrayal of war.

In the opening sequence of the film, the camera trails behind a group of 6 soldiers as they walk hesitantly through an abandoned street; the silence is almost unnerving. As fliers fall listlessly from the sky warning the allies of their weak position, one of the young men struggles to get water from a garden hose, another scavenges through an old ashtray for used cigarettes, while another begins to squat in a yard to relieve himself when suddenly the calm is pierced by the ringing of shots . One by one, the soldiers fall until only one remains. Tommy, played by newcomer Fionn Whitehead, retreats to the relative ‘safety’ of the beach, but later learns of the scarce possibilities of escape available to him.

The standout performances include Tom Hardy’s portrayal of a fighter pilot named Farrier, who creates a lasting impression despite having very few lines and being hidden behind a mask for the majority of the film. Another noteworthy performance is that of Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson, a civilian who takes his boat out to sea in the hopes of doing his part and possibly rescuing the stranded soldiers in Dunkirk. Both men barely speak and yet leave the audience feeling emotionally sympathetic and inspired by their stories. Additionally, Dunkirk is the acting debut of singer Harry Styles as a British soldier seeking survival, but his performance does not distract from the film as a whole.

Nolan, as both the writer and director, does not offer up easy answers or conclusions. Many of his films deal with nonlinear story lines and viewers can see hints of this in Dunkirk. The story, separated into three sections, is also separated by three different timelines and often goes forward and backward in time to tell the events from all three angles and perspectives. The music by Hans Zimmer, another common characteristic of a Nolan film, is deafening at times and overly dramatic in scenes which did not need the additional drama. It is in the quiet moments which Nolan’s film shines best, times when all hope seems to be lost but there is an undercurrent of resilience and valor.

Fans of excellent filmmaking should not miss the opportunity to view this film in the incredible 70mm playing at Coral Gables Art Cinema or the 70mm Imax experience. Dunkirk is an excellently crafted, unique, and emotional experience which juxtaposes more intimate stories with the grander scheme of war. Christopher Nolan has managed to craft an intense and remarkable film which will go down alongside the best war films of film history.


Kimberly Morles is a Junior at FIU majoring in English. She is pursuing a certificate in Exile and Film Studies.

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