Hoping for deliverance: A review of “Dunkirk”

by The Collected Mutineer

As a person thoroughly obsessed with all things British, I’ve often heard the term “the Dunkirk spirit.” It’s a phrase interspersed throughout 20th-century literature, films, and television. I knew to what it referred—the fighting spirit of the Brits during World War II, specifically mentioning the battle of Dunkirk. What I didn’t fully understand until recently was the severity of Operation Dynamo, the bravery of the civilians who put themselves in danger to help rescue their troops, and how the evacuation of over 300,000 soldiers is one of the most defining moments in Western history. These three things are the focus of Oscar-nominated Dunkirk, a film that showcases human survival and the inspirational message of everyday heroism.

Directed by Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk follows three perspectives of the evacuation—land, sea, and air. On the French beach, we see British soldiers awaiting rescue from the encroaching German forces: Tommy, a young private, and two other soldiers are nearly evacuated but the destroyer is sunk by enemy forces and they are forced to return to land. On the English channel, Navy requisitioned civilian vessels are making their way to Dunkirk: a man named Dawson and his son Peter are navigating their boat Moonstone along with Peter’s friend George when they rescue a shell-shocked soldier from some wreckage. In the airspace above the channel, three pilots are making their way to Dunkirk to provide cover for the evacuating vessels.

Just like with Darkest Hour, it is difficult to avoid spoilers when the subject is WWII. But despite how often audiences have been shown WWII films in the past, there’s something about this one that sets it apart. Yes, we know the overall outcome, but it’s hard not to find yourself on the edge of your seat watching these men hope for deliverance and fight to stay alive until help comes. There isn’t a lot of dialogue, but it’s hard to miss it when the riveting Hans Zimmer score is pounding in your ears like the heartbeat of a frantic soldier.

This isn’t a movie about the politics of the war or Churchill’s decisions—this is about the people who lived and died for their country. In Tommy, we experience the stories of 1000 other children sent to fight. Alongside Dawson and Peter, we witness the extraordinary solidarity of those who were not sent to fight but chose to risk their lives regardless of the cost. It’s educational, sure. But more importantly, it is deeply emotionally satisfying. It’s moving without feeling manufactured. And at the end of the day, it’s a war movie that doesn’t even need to show you “the war” itself. What is “the war” if not the story of the people who saved each other? If you prefer war films along the same vein as Saving Private Ryan, this may not be something you feel drawn to. This isn’t your typical exploration of WWII—but for me, that’s what makes it masterful.

Do you think Dunkirk has a chance of taking home the Oscar for Best Picture tomorrow night? Let us know in the comments below, or over on Twitter.