Christopher Nolan is known for movies like Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception, and Interstellar, but while Dunkirk holds true to Nolan’s bold style unlike the aforementioned films it is based on actual historical events. The Battle of Dunkirk was a retreat for the Allied forces (the majority of which were British and French troops) who were being driven towards the English Channel by the German forces. The Allied forces were failing to defend France against Nazi Germany, and the only alternative to surrender was to die fighting or escape to the British mainland.
Nolan’s Dunkirk focuses on snapshots of the evacuation, making the evacuation Dunkirk feel more like one day rather than ten days. While Nolan delivers his typical high octane action through dogfights and bombings he also highlights the humanity of soldiers and citizens through displaying a range of heroism and cowardice, sometimes presenting itself in the same character. This contrast of courage and fear is fitting considering the heritage of Dunkirk remains one of victory and defeat.
Another thing to note about the film is that Nolan focuses almost entirely on the British. There is recognition of the French and at least one Belgian makes an appearance, but besides their war machines, the Germans are silent. Nolan is telling a story about the resilience of the British and Allied forces in what would be a loss crucial to eventual victory for the allied forces. The movie avoids dehumanizing German soldiers while remaining entirely uninterested in the antagonist that is Nazi Germany.
The film displays star actors like Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and Mark Rylance, but also sports breakout performances from Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles. The actors fit their roles well, and the quality costume design and cinematography creates a believable cinematic experience. The stubborn pride of the British shines through the film.
Dunkirk rightly highlights fear alongside courage, but the sweetness of this film is displayed in its summation. The audience is left with the words of Winston Churchill as the fate of the film’s characters is left hanging in the balance. That’s exactly where Britain and the whole of Europe was left in 1940. With the United States remaining uncommitted to the War and the Soviet Union maintaining its Non-aggression Pact, Britain, France, and the rebel forces of other European nations were abandoned, caged with the monstrosity of Nazi Germany.
The righteous rebellion of the Allied forces in the face of failure and defeat lights a fire of emotion and ignites endurance and hope within the human spirit. Though no war is black and white in its justifications and no person is entirely pure, World War II may be the best example of a just war. The struggles of the Allied forces at Dunkirk are amazing not only for the overwhelming obstacles faced, collective heroism displayed, and divine grace received but also for the moral argument fueling the British zeitgeist to “never surrender”.