The 1940 “Miracle at Dunkirk” is the subject of Christopher Nolan’s latest big budget feature, a vast sweeping WWII epic and passion project from the acclaimed British director best known for the ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy and a couple of FX-heavy sci-fi mindbenders that start with an “I,” ‘Inception’ and ‘Interstellar.’ In turning an ignominious and unmitigated military disaster resulting from German “shock and awe” (aka Blitzkrieg) lightning warfare that brought France to her knees in a little more than two weeks into a symbol of British defiance, individual heroism and selfless sacrifice, the story of Dunkirk just begs to be re-told (there was a 1958 version apparently which I haven’t seen) to a modern audience who sadly know too little about world history.
The narrative of ‘Dunkirk’ is divided into three distinct but related parts. “The Mole” follows a lowly British PBI (poor bloody infantryman) named Tommy (aren’t they all?) as he attempts to survive repeated Luftwaffe air attacks and reach “Home Sweet Home.” “The Sea” is mostly told from the POV of a British naval officer (Kenneth Branagh) overseeing the evacuation effort and a yachtsman (Mark Rylance) who answered the call to join the hastily assembled fleet of private fishing vessels, yachts and ferry boats sailing toward Dunkirk. Lastly, “The Air” is seen through the eyes of a RAF Spitfire pilot (Tom Hardy) who risks running out of fuel before he can return to base in order to provide air cover for the helpless (“where is the bloody air force?!”) Tommies who can only anxiously peer into the sky at the sound of approaching German bombers.
While the non-linear storytelling and down-in-the-dirt POV are effective in conveying the realism, chaos, fear, heroism and, yes, even cowardice one would expect in the unforgiving crucible of war and make for a harrowing viewing experience, the juxtaposition of the three subplots and the rapidly shifting perspectives achieved through cut scenes in editing prevented the movie from reaching greatness. Even though the three parts did come together at the end (and two of them intersected at another point earlier in the film), it lacked the dramatic impact and emotional resonance of more linear war movies. Nolan shouldn't have given 'Dunkirk' the ‘Memento’ treatment, but do go see it anyway because films such as this should really be watched on the big screen (unless you have a state-of-the-art home theatre system and don't mind the wait) so you can hear and feel the rumbles and reverberations of every explosion deep down in your very bones.