With a bare minimum of dialogue, and a brutal maximum of scenes depicting near-drowning situations in and around Dunkirk, France, in late May and early June 1940, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is a unique waterboarding of a film experience.
Many will respond to it, primally, as a grueling dramatization of what the English call “the Dunkirk spirit,” one that turned a perilous mass evacuation of British and Allied troops, under German fire (though bad weather kept the Luftwaffe largely at bay), into a show of collective show of resilience at a crucial early crossroads of World War II.
Operation Dynamo, Winston Churchill called it. Thanks to a series of interlocking lucky breaks (including the decision, probably Hitler’s, to call off the Nazi tanks before they got to Dunkirk), somewhere between 340,000 and 400,000 Allied soldiers, mostly British and French, were rescued from the beach and harbor of the smoldering coastal city. Operation Dynamo was dominated by naval vessels and “one of the most oddly assorted flotillas in history.” This is how historian C.L. Sulzberger described the hundreds of civilian boats that made it across the English Channel, under German fire, and back again, carrying survivors of Dunkirk.
Nolan’s somewhat perversely structured screenplay tells three stories, also interlocking, laced with flashbacks and revisits to scenes, moments, really, you may not realize are revisits from a new perspective. Nolan lays the groundwork as clearly as possible with title cards, though if you don’t realize “The Mole” refers to an 8-foot-wide pier, you may spend an inordinate amount of viewing time trying to find the spy in the narrative. (Nolan plays on this double meaning, deliberately.) On land, storyline one, aka “The Mole,” unfolds over a week’s time. The young, nearly mute soldier in British uniform we follow (played by Aneurin Barnard) spies an opportunity for rescue, as he grabs a stretcher…