We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
-Winston Churchill, June 1940
Has anyone ever been better than Winston Churchill at giving motivational speeches? He had a way of rising to the occasion and here, the stakes had never been higher. This speech was given immediately after the British and their Allies had been run out of France by the invading Germans. Victory over the Nazis was not on the horizon and must have seemed impossible at the time. That’s more or less what Churchill said, after all: he is not describing a plan to win. He is describing a last-ditch effort to survive when the Nazis try to conquer Britain after they finish in France, and a cry for help to the New World to save the day in that bleak scenario (Canada was, of course, already part of the Allied forces at the time, but the U.S. would not be until Pearl Harbor).
The devastating outcome of the Battle of Dunkirk gave good reason for Churchill’s pessimism. It is a fascinating historical event because it was a loss that could well have broken the Allies, but instead, it galvanized them, particularly in the way that the British survived: hundreds of civilian vessels sailed from Britain to France to help rescue over 300,000 Allied soldiers from the Nazis.
Time and time again, Christopher Nolan has proven himself to be as adept a director as Churchill was a speaker. Tonally, Nolan’s Dunkirk captures what must have been the prevailing mood on the ground, at sea, and in the air as the Battle of Dunkirk was fought. Nolan makes an inspired structural choice by intertwining three different stories over three different time periods, and as only Nolan can do, effectively explains a complex structure using only three small titlecards at the very beginning. Dunkirk is reminiscent of The Prestige in that way – in both, Nolan always provides enough cues so the viewer knows exactly where a particular scene fits into the overall timeline and story, even as he tells the story in a complex, non-linear fashion.
With Dunkirk, Nolan has outdone himself. Given how consistently great he has been throughout his career, it is incredible to think that he has gotten better, but that is clearly the case. Dunkirk is absolutely masterful filmmaking from start to finish. Above all else, Nolan’s film captures the essence of Dunkirk and gives us a true sense of the anguish of war, the desire to survive, and the fear of the unknown that soldiers must deal with constantly. In particular, I am reminded of the scenes featuring Tom Hardy’s RAF pilot, all of which inserted me into the battle and truly made me feel how claustrophobic a Spitfire’s cramped cockpit would be, and how difficult it would be to spot, identify, and track an enemy fighter, let alone shoot it down.
For the viewer, this is a vital, visceral, and draining experience. Dunkirk is a 106 minute movie that feels like it’s four hours long (which Nolan would take as a high praise, I think, if he ever read this review). From start to finish, it is tense, it is devastating, it is awful and it is brilliant. Dunkirk is filmmaking at its finest and a fitting tribute to one of the defining events of the 20th century.