Arts and Entertainment

The Story of Dunkirk

“Dunkirk” is not a story about war, but about human endeavor.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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By Alex Lin

“Dunkirk” is a movie about war, but doesn’t depict war’s violence. In fact, this film is not really about violent conflict; it is more about what desperate people do in desperate situations.

The movie opens with five soldiers rummaging through the deserted French town of Dunkirk. Suddenly, ghostly gunfire sends the soldiers running until there is only one left, who barely makes it over a picket fence to safety. The remaining soldier is the film’s protagonist, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), and he is characteristically quiet. He later meets another soldier, Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), who buries a dead comrade.

They emerge on the expansive Dunkirk beach, whose white sands and dull blue skies would be picturesque if it weren’t for the masses of straggling soldiers cooped up on the shores. The scenes following are set mostly on land near the makeshift pier, called “The Mole,” that the Allies are using to evacuate their soldiers from Dunkirk. In the short time that it took for Tommy to go from the town to the beach, the film has already displayed fear, need, and sadness.

The film switches back and forth between three segments: The Mole, The Sea, and The Air. “The Mole” takes place over the course of a week as Tommy and his fellow soldiers are struggling to survive the chaos that takes place to evacuate Dunkirk’s beaches. “The Sea” is a day onboard the “Moonstone,” a small boat joining an armada of other civilians and their ragtag vessels in an attempt to help rescue the soldiers. “The Air” follows three Spitfire pilots for an hour as they try to bring down enemy planes and protect the escaping minesweepers and boats full of soldiers.

There is no violence. This film is about its soldiers and rarely does it mention what the war is about or who the enemy is. The soldiers aren’t fighting or participating in typical acts of war. They’re just fighting to survive in acts of human plight. All of the characters look tired, depressed, and pessimistic. The first soldier that the Moonstone rescues is so shell-shocked that he accidentally injures and ultimately kills one of the civilians on board the boat. In an earlier scene, Tommy and Gibson are sitting on the Dunkirk shore after being rescued from yet another sinking ship. A soldier staggers past them and heads right toward the ocean. A wave of foam and water engulfs him, but there is no splashing and struggling for life. The man disappears in an act that says, “This is what war does to men.”

The movie’s stubborn portrayal of only human endeavors contributes to its intensity. This intensity is based on tension and suspense, not in one realm, but in several as the camera seamlessly moves between Tommy writhing in flaming oily water and a Spitfire pilot thinking he’ll drown in the cockpit of his downed plane. Everything is intertwined by the environment and actions of the characters. Depicting nothing in chronological order is reminiscent of how the average person tells stories, sometimes skipping around or going back and forth between events.

What the movie lacks in scale, it makes up for by showing the beauty of the basic struggle for life. None of the characters do more than what is necessary in a war where rescuing human lives is a priority. There is no heroic speech or overly patriotic feeling. Plenty of soldiers are traumatized and plenty more die. One of the Spitfire pilots manages to stop an especially deadly German assault on one of the evacuating warships but runs out of fuel and lands far from the pier.

One of the most beautiful moments in the film is when the pilot sets his plane on fire to prevent it from being used by the Germans. Even as Germans arrive onto the scene, their faces are blurry and the focus stays on the pilot’s figure as he stares at the Spitfire. Defiance and courage in the face of his capture is the only patriotic moment of the film and presents a sense of reassurance and relief.