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Nolan reinvents cinematic war with ‘Dunkirk’

Genre: Drama/Thriller

Director: Christopher Nolan


Runtime: 106 minutes.

Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy

Fun Fact: According to IMDB, Nolan’s pocket watch was used to create the clock ticking sound effects interspersed throughout the movie.


In an era in which we are saturated with war movies focusing on victory and worldwide glory, it is refreshing to see a movie the likes of Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” a genuine tour-de-force, and a film that inverts the idea of what it means to win. In many movies, winning involves wrecking destruction upon the hapless enemies. But Nolan inverts what it means to win.

“All we did is survive,” grouses one British soldier, upon returning to his home country in the battle’s aftermath. But in this movie, survival and life are the ultimate victories, a refreshing change.

The movie focuses on the British efforts to flee Dunkirk, France in May 1940, as the Nazis march victorious through Europe, into France, having pushed back British and French forces to this port town. To reinforce the urgency, the movie opens with leaflets flying across the town of Dunkirk as a young British soldier flees the Germans, and flees toward the beach, where fellow soldiers await their salvation, lined up in perfect order, in a kind of dark irony.

Nolan focuses on the battle through three specific perspectives: The battle on land, in the air and in the sea. The battle for survival on land covers a week. The battle in the sea covers a day and the battle in the air covers an hour. These shifts in point of view and time offer powerful and varied views of the destruction and the despair, from the clouds of billowing smoke witnessed by a squadron of Air Force pilots, to the soldiers literally treading water and stranded upon the beach, juxtaposed against vivid and striking colors that give the landscape a certain majesty, and a certain sense of defeat. These images give the film a great deal of its emotional weight, and reinforce the fact that the battle is one for survival and not posterity and glory.

As distorted and unconventional as the structure may be, given the threat of German domination, all sense of logic and order are thrown out the window, and time takes on a new and grim form for the players. Time not only exists in this non-linear sequence of events, but in terms of the events unfolding around the British forces. In the midst of this battle for survival, some of its players are already considering its ramifications, and the next battles to come. Time threatens not only the soldiers gathered desperately on the beach, struggling for survival in sunken British vessels and in the air, but their entire nation itself.


“Britain’s next,” laments Branagh’s Commander Bolton, “then the rest of the world.”

As if to reinforce time’s urgency, we are subjected to a ticking clock sound throughout, especially in moments in which soldiers struggle for survival in a submerged vessel. Time is a powerful agent, and Nolan never lets us forget it. Time is as much of an enemy as the Germans themselves. Time also forces characters to make hard choices, including a scene in which Branagh’s character is forced to grapple with a grim reality: Only a certain number of men can be evacuated. Others must be left behind. Space is limited.This is the reality that time has wrought upon the British forces, and the ethical and moral dilemmas they face are difficult, and powerfully emphasized by Nolan’s mastery as both director and writer.

While the movie has a first-rate cast, including Kenneth Branagh as a commander involved in evacuating British troops, along with Tom Hardy and Harry Styles as members of the British forces, the movie has no singular protagonist to focus upon. It is a tale of collective struggle, with pilots, soldiers and Navy members alike struggling to survive. It is the story of forces banding together to try to make sense of the madness and come through. Britain, then, is the ultimate protagonist, battling multiple forces, and as a viewer I rooted consistently for the British and their success.

Should you see this movie? Absolutely!

At one point late in the movie, one of Churchill’s most famous speeches is quoted, reminding the viewer that the battle’s end does not connote defeat for the British, even as the Nazis march forward. “We shall fight on the seas and the oceans….we shall never surrender,” a British officer reads in the paper. And after the struggle that is Dunkirk, and the havoc wrought, one cannot doubt this commitment, this hardening of souls, this determination to fight another battle. And as a viewer, I was fully invested, and rooting for the battles to be won.

Collegian reporter Mir-Yashar Seyedbagheri can be reached at His Twitter handle is @dudesosad.

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