Warning: minor spoilers for Dunkirk follow.
I’ve never been a big fan of war movies. There’s only so many times I can be told that “war is hell” by watching a ragtag group of soldiers make their way through hell and back before it gets old. This is why, despite the Oscar buzz around it, I’ve never been particularly interested in seeing “Hacksaw Ridge”.
Enter “Dunkirk”. All of the pre-release hype surrounding the movie billed it as something totally different.
And you know what? For once, the hype wasn’t wrong.
“Dunkirk” is about the event itself more than the people involved in it, which on its own is unique for the genre. But the movie takes a non-linear approach as well. The story is told from three different points of view: on land taking place over a week, on the sea taking place over a day, and in the air taking place over an hour. This means that as we move through the movie, we see events happen from these different perspectives. For example, at one point in the movie we watch as a couple of spitfire pilots take down a bomber that had just sunk a large warship. From up in the air, we see people bailing out into the water, but because of our distance from it we don’t feel the full impact. Then later, we see that same event but from the people down at sea level, which instantly makes the event far more harrowing than it was before.
This happens more than once throughout the movie. The three points of view weave in and out of each other (for example, we see the three spitfire planes from the “air” perspective fly over the boat from the “sea” perspective). My only gripe with this narrative style is that at first it can be a little disorienting. The movie spells out for you at the beginning the time frames each perspective takes place over, but it still might take viewers a little bit of time before they understand what is meant by “one week”, “one day”, and “one hour”. That, combined with the disjointed nature of the plot, might be a little off-putting to some.
I was also thrown off a little by the fact that the land segment was titled “the mole”. I didn’t find out until after the movie, but “the mole” refers to the large concrete jetties they used to facilitate the evacuation of troops. It’s a nice detail, but it seems inconsistent when the other segments are simply titled “the sea” and “the air”.
Despite these minor qualms though, the unique chronology of the film is what makes it so great. It tightens the pacing, making sure that we’re never at ease or too far away from the action. And this is underscored by the tense soundtrack, which features a low ticking noise that gets faster and louder the closer you get to something bad happening.
This non-linearity becomes an integral part of the film’s themes as well. “Dunkirk”, at its core, is about the small victories in the face of a massive failure. Historically, the battle of Dunkirk was a bitter and devastating defeat for the Allies. They were forced to retreat all the way to the town of Dunkirk, where they were surrounded by the Germans and had to wait for rescue. The movie captures the sense of hopelessness the event must have inspired in the Allied soldiers. And the non-linear style of it allows us to see the struggles from land, sea, and air, which gives us a compelling overview of the entire event instead of focusing on a small group of people within the event itself.
The movie does give us key characters to observe all the happenings through, but in the end it is about the Dunkirk battle itself. And even though we feel a sense of triumph by the end, it is tempered by the knowledge that this was a bitter defeat for the Allied forces. The movie culminates with a reading of the famous “we shall fight on the beaches” speech by Winston Churchill, but the rousing words are at one point superimposed over a shot of empty infantry helmets lying on the beaches, reminding us of the toll Dunkirk took.
In many ways, “Dunkirk” succeeds. It succeeds at being a non-linear narrative. It succeeds at being a tense and thrilling movie. It succeeds at giving us an in-depth look at a historical event that is likely not well-known in popular culture.
But most of all, it succeeds at reminding us that “war is hell” in its own unique way.
Thanks for reading. Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.