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Movie Review: Dunkirk

Dunkirk is a war movie without a gratuitous love story

Elle Stetson Dibble, Staff writer

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Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk describes the evacuation of British and allied troops from coastal Dunkerque, France, during World War II, from May 26th to June 4th, 1940. German forces had surrounded Dunkirk, leaving thousands of allied troops stranded on the beach and in need of evacuation, amidst the struggle to defend the perimeter between German and the allied troops.

Nolan leaves this historical context unaddressed, though, instead choosing to focus on individual struggles for survival. Without a larger picture to rationalize the vivid violence of the war, I found myself greatly emotionally invested in the survival of the soldiers that the film so intimately portrays. From the first scene of a small group of British soldiers running from bullets on a deserted streetscape to some of the final scenes of evacuation, the film held me captive in the tension of individual struggles for survival with death so palpably close.

Dunkirk breaks into three perspectives: land, air, and sea. A young English soldier on the Dunkerque beach awaiting evacuation represents the land, three English fighter pilots represent the air, and a small civilian yacht trying to aid in the land evacuation represents the water. The ultimate intersection of the land, air, and sea elements comes when the civilian-operated yacht saves one of the pilots after his plane crashes into the ocean. This reflects the larger history of the civilian boats’ responsibility for the successful evacuation of thousands of Allied troops. This alignment in the film successfully captures the spirit of unity that the British exemplified by rescuing their countrymen and allies when the military was unable to do so alone.

This sense of heroism doesn’t apply to the violence of the film, though. The stark portrayals of human fear and suffering prevented me from buying into the narrative of gloryful battle and that many war movies support to justify violence. There is little splendor or logic in lines of soldiers being blown to bits, drowning in sunken ships, and burning to death.

Dunkirk is certainly difficult to watch; as the violence crescendos, I frequently felt the need to detach from the film, much like I might force myself awake from a nightmare, to remember that I was sitting in the theater by my own choice. As the evacuation and the violence end, though, I remembered the greater context of the battle. I saw one of the English fighter pilots land on the Dunkerque beach in a German zone, where he is captured. The British Commander chooses to stay behind in France to assist the evacuation of French troops. As the film comes to a close, the story is far from over. Leaving the theatre, I was grateful to have had a small glimpse into this portion of human history that so aptly illustrates the fragility of human life, and the tenuousness of the bonds that hold us together in peace.  

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Movie Review: Dunkirk