The great challenge in getting excited about Dunkirk is that you know how it ends. You know how the battle ends. And even though the three main characters are archetypes, you know how their stories will end. The pilot (Tom Hardy) desperately trying to squeeze a few more minutes out of his mission, the fishing boat captain (Mark Rylance) braving the Channel to save a few countrymen, and the soldier (Fionn Whitehead) angling to find a quicker way home. As tense and relentless as director Christopher Nolan’s storytelling may be, you have no doubt that most – not all, but most – will survive … one way or another. For a movie that tries so hard to be different, it is inevitably so predictable.
To fall further into cliché, Dunkirk is about the journey, not the destination. In typical Nolanesque style, Dunkirk weaves the three characters’ stories around, through and in-between three timelines spanning one hour in the air, one day at sea, and one week on the beach. Action, not dialog, propels the movie forward, as the pilot engages in breathtaking dogfights, the captain and his young crew race to save survivors from torpedoed ships and downed aircraft, and the soldier makes multiple abortive attempts to board a rescue vessel while dodging German strafing runs.
Dunkirk manages to be a compelling and memorable experience, without being a distinctive or memorable story. The action is terrifying and the pace relentless, with photography that puts you right in the action. An early scene on the beach, as you see from ground level a series of bombs coming closer, has you holding your breath. Your cockpit view of the aerial dogfights is heart-pounding.
After leaving the theater, you’re best off not stretching too hard to find a deeper message. It’s not clear to me, at least, how the dueling timelines did anything to reinforce understanding of a movie that casts a spectacular military disaster with a slight blush of victory. What the English accomplished at Dunkirk was indeed extraordinary, even miraculous. Dunkirk the movie is an extraordinary experience, and that is good enough.