Baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams once told his biographer that the way a movie is supposed to start is in medias res — right in the thick of an air battle over Korea. After seeing “Dunkirk,” I can tell you that the Splendid Splinter would’ve been thrilled with Christopher Nolan’s foray into one of the most desperate times in World War II, the evacuation of Dunkirk.
The movie of the same name begins as a young British private (named Tommy, though the film doesn’t go out of its way to identify many of the characters) flees Dunkirk and waits on line, as a sitting duck with English and French soldiers on the beach with Germans bombing left and right. The evacuation of hundreds of thousands of soldiers occurs as the Nazis continue to flex their muscles, invade Paris, and drive young boys in uniform right to the sea.
Maybe I should announce a spoiler alert before we go any further, but maybe you should read a history book if you don’t already know what happened.
Dunkirk portrays three separate storylines which convene in time; there is no true lead, just a band of soldiers with grit.
The first is the desperate evacuation by Tommy and the Allied forces from certain death. Throughout the plot, they continue to miraculously evade a watery grave, jumping on whatever boats and crafts they can find to survive. Yes, Harry Styles is part of this group, having fought through his own audition to land the part of a British private, Alex; ironically Nolan wasn’t aware of his deity status in middle schools everywhere.
The second, and for my money, most influential squad is a small yacht containing Mr. Dawson (no first name given), his son Peter, and Peter’s friend George, who load the Dawson ship with supplies to aid in the evacuation. Imagine Americans living abroad in the Middle East driving their Jeeps to Fallujah or Mosul to bring soldiers and allies relief; this incredible act of patriotism by British citizens seems unmatched before or since. En route to Dunkirk, the crew picks up the lone survivor of a U-boat attack with obvious PTSD; when he sees where their vessel is headed, he gets into a tussle with Dawson and accidentally knocks young George below deck. The Dawsons, and other (ex)ordinary Brits with boats, aide in rescuing around 400,000 brave troops. The fleet has almost a “Hotel Rwanda” feel as more and more frightened soldiers pile on in desperation.
The final group is a trio of Royal Air Force pilots, who one by one meet their own fates as they test the limits of their gas tanks and evasiveness. Eventually, all three groups wind up converging as the evacuation turns up successful, and soldiers are sent home, many of whom simply don’t feel escaping, and surviving, makes them heroic enough.
I would highly recommend reading up on the actual evacuation before going to see Dunkirk. The movie starts, as mentioned, right in the middle of the action, and there’s very little dialogue or background given. Those not well read on World War II may be in for a very confusing beginning. Nolan clearly intended for his theater audience to feel as flies on the wall, literally in the middle of an aerial combat scenes as they happen, and literally in the middle of a struggle for life.
Most will become attached as they watch 18-20 year boys plug holes in sinking ships, desperately try to punch through plane windshields, and creatively find every which way they can to survive the brutal attack. While there are plenty of heroic moments, Dunkirk gives us a hidden camera into the absolute desperation of a British nation, and western European front, with their backs against the wall.
Of course, because we can’t just enjoy a movie anymore, there’s a controversy about the film not having enough women and minorities in the cast. But instead of USA Today bemoaning the lack of gender and racial diversity in the historical depiction of Dunkirk, maybe their staff writers should, once again, read a history book.