Dunkirk – Christopher Nolan Tells the Impossible World War 2 Story

For many Americans, the story of Dunkirk is a dim chapter from WW2. That is likely because it preceded America’s entry to the war, which occurred six months later.

To most Europeans, especially to Brits, the story of what transpired in the English Channel in May 1940 evokes a deserved tingle of pride. The event is often considered ‘a victory in defeat.’

With “Dunkirk” esteemed writer, director, producer Christopher Nolan marshals all his forces with a triumphant retelling.

German troops were storming across Europe, forcing Allied troops into the French seaside town of Dunkirk. With over 300,000 troops pinned on the beach, they were fast becoming sitting ducks. With only sporadic air cover and a crippled navy, the Allies were facing a German invasion of England’s green and pleasant land.

Nolan drives us straight into the story, never relying on the traditional tropes of supplying backstories for the soldiers. Overcoming some initial continuity diversions (the same beach scenes are alternately sunny, cloudy, calm and treacherous), Nolan swiftly cuts from land to sea to air and back. He tells at least three separate stories, slowly tightening the grip on the audience.

The civilian fleet of British pleasure craft is what ultimately rescues the trapped troops. The perennially underrated Mark Rylance captains his small craft across the Channel, and it is mostly through his eyes that the parallel stories converge. Tom Hardy plays a Spitfire pilot, whose heroic fate I will not reveal here. Suffice to say, the air combat scenes are riveting. The full grandeur and raw courage of the pilots is on full display. The sweeping vistas of the seas over which the planes dogfight are gripping.

On and often under the sea another set of challenges unfold. Kenneth Branagh is perfectly cast as Commander Bolton, charged with the impossible task of keeping the landlocked troops safe against impossible odds. Branagh spends most of his scenes jutting his jaw out to sea, but his British resolve is steadfast and representative of his troops.

Soldiers played by Harry Styles, Fionn Whitehead and Cillian Murphy are put through treacherous ploys.

Lee Smith handled the adroit editing. Only as the strands come together in the final minutes does the genius of Nolan’s script emerge. I expect the dialogue if condensed would fill very few pages of the script, so effective is the acting, editing and cinematography. Hans Zimmer’s score is unrelenting in accelerating the tension.

With a remarkable set of films already under his belt, Nolan goes a long way in redefining the war movie with his magnificent “Dunkirk.”


Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.