The closest we get to seeing the enemy’s face in Dunkirk is when a young German soldier named Tommy slyly infiltrates British territory while posing as an Englishmen. But beyond that, the enemy lurks behind clouds of smoke and the slow pitter-patter of waves, always ready to strike from whatever angle, with British forces always two steps behind.
It’s a taut, meticulous display in filmmaking, a wartime wonder to behold on screen. Dunkirk conveys the sense of utter hopelessness of war better than any film before it, where British soldiers and civilians walked into battle knowing they’d most likely perish. Christopher Nolan makes you feel as cramped for room as the soldiers on his vessels, as hungry as the rescued crew nobbing away at tiny pieces of bread, as out of breath as near drowned survivors battling for spaces on life boats, and as blind as the souls whose arms are covered in blood and eyes are stained by black oil. Very little dialogue is shared in the film, with the crux of the story being told through somber facial expressions of its exhausted but valiant characters.
One thing that Dunkirk strikes home for American audiences is just how close the war was to Britain. For us, it was a world’s away, with our best boys shipping off to the war over there, never having to worry about bombs or invasions coming up on our home turf (except Pearl Harbor of course). Dunkirk effectively portrays just how close Germany was to taking over Britain, how one false steer from a volunteer vessel or one wasted bullet from an overhead plane could mean the end of the allied movement. It’s terrifying and simultaneously exhilarating, a truly on-the-edge-of-your-seat movie experience.
Nolan clearly has an affinity for this period in history, with Dunkirk simultaneously feeling like his most personal film and his most distant. It’s as if Nolan’s paying homage to his ancestors and family and friends who served at Dunkirk, while also performing a service for the British government, trying to recapture the events of Dunkirk so the world will remember. Every actor in the film carries themselves with a sense of honor and mutual respect, like they understand the scope of the project they’re working on and just how much it will mean to Britain. Out of all the performances, Fionn Whitehead’s stands out greatest as a German spy. You literally hate him for the entire movie, hoping for his downfall, but also carry a respect for him that he was so sly and cunning to keep himself alive. Mark Rylance is also great as a sailor who volunteers in the effort, and Cillian Murphy is haunting as a shell-shocked soldier desperately trying to avoid going back to war.
It’s the kind of movie you’ll need to watch several times to catch all the details, but its one that will keep your attention throughout. It’s not necessarily Christopher Nolan’s best movie but it is certainly his most monumental achievement, a wartime movie exercise in perfection and honor that he executes without fail.