As I embark on my first review of the 2018 Oscar season, I can’t help but reflect a bit. The impulse is only helped along by the fact that it’s been many months since I first saw this film.
At the time, the Oscars were still a far-off possibility for all of this year’s nominees, including “Dunkirk.” (Although I will admit that even then it screamed Academy gold.)
Awards aside, what I’ve found with all of these reviews (even the blockbuster ones) is that the things that stick with me the most are the things they taught me. Sometimes that’s a life lesson, sometimes it’s a historical fact, sometimes, as it was in the case of “Dunkirk,” it’s a little bit of both—the Dunkirk spirit.
For those who are unfamiliar and haven’t seen the film, I’ll explain. The Dunkirk spirit is bravery in the face of unbeatable odds, but even more than that, it’s the spirit of community and comradery and selflessness that comes with such times. It’s the human spirit at its finest and most resilient.
“Dunkirk” made its debut this past summer, right in the middle of the summer blockbuster season. With all of its blasts and explosions (which are practically a character all their own), it fit in quite nicely right alongside the dueling robots and superheroes. It’s defining factor, of course, is that it’s based on actual events, and its heroes were just as ordinary and you and me, yet they accomplished extraordinary things.
For those unfamiliar, the battle of Dunkirk (aka Operation Dynamo) was a military operation during WWII, where civilian vessels—ferries, fishing ships, merchant crafts—were requisitioned by the British military to get men off the beaches of Dunkirk, France. The British troops were cornered by the Germans, who for unknown reasons slowed their approach, just enough to allow time for 300,000 men to be evacuated via these small crafts because the naval ships couldn’t get through the shallow water around Dunkirk.
The story is told from three different perspectives, land (a soldier on the beach), sea (civilians making their way to rescue soldiers), and air (two pilots on their way to provide air defense).
On land Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is surrounded by soldiers who all look nearly the same as him (yes, even Harry Styles) creating a uniformity that strikes a particular chord when one of them is revealed to be a frightened French soldier. We get glimpses of Tommy’s superiors on the beach (Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy) as they do their best to keep this unlikely operation afloat.
By sea, the Moonstone, piloted by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) along with his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his son’s friend (Barry Keoghan), heads across the English Channel to do what it can for the stranded souls. This determined vessel picks up a few bonus passengers along the way one comes from a stranded naval ship (Cillian Murphy) the other starts out in the air (Jack Lowden).
In the air, two airmen (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden), who have already lost their third pilot, make their way across the Channel too to provide what help they can from the skies.
All three stories move at very different paces as they approach the same moment, colliding with one another in surprising ways, as they cover very different amounts of time. The effect is disorienting but effective.
In this case, the reality is as astonishing as the story told on screen, and no moment captures the emotion of it all better than the moment the army of small ships is first spotted on the horizon. That is the Dunkirk spirit and I can only hope that it’s something none of us, even the ones of us who don’t quite know it by name, will ever lose.