So, Dunkirk. There's a lot to say here. And before I do, there will be some spoilers here, but if you know your history, you already have the spoilers. That said, I'll try not to spoil it for you.
First off, if you don't know what leads up to the movie, you might be a little lost- so let's clear that up first. Here's a super lightweight rundown of what goes on before the movie starts you off:
In 1939, Germany invaded Poland. At that point, war was basically declared throughout Europe with most countries declaring war on Germany. Italy, Lithuania and Yugoslavia sided with Germany; Switzerland, Finland and Sweden decided to sit it out. At first, Germany paid no attention to the west- all eyes were focused east, towards Russia (who Germany had an non-aggression pact with at the time- which ended with Operation Barbarossa in September, 1940) and France decided that they were in peril (which they were) and asked the Brits for help. Beginning in early 1940, the British Expeditionary Forces (BEF) started sending troops to France for her defense. It started out slowly, and the Brits were mainly staged along the Belgian border where they did.....well, not much at first. It was all a fairly civil affair, with an occasional skirmish here and there.
But, without much warning, in early May, 1940, the Germans attacked France, Belgium and The Netherlands, and when they did they were met by 10 divisions of BEF and a large number of French forces. At this point in the war, Germany "had it going on", having much more seasoned and better trained troops for the fight. (Remember- German troops had been fighting since the Spanish Civil War in 1937) They were able to (relatively) easily push the BEF and French forces back to the northern coast of France towards Calais. At the same time that the Germans were pushing these forces back into France, an entire other German army had advanced in the west, captured the ports of Boulougn and Calais and pincered the BEF forces at Dunkirk, just a few miles east of Calais. A total of 400,000 men were stuck on the beach with nowhere to go and the Germans kept pounding them- literally as they sat like ducks on the open beaches. The Germans had complete control of the air and a tremendous amount of U-boats (subs) in the area that basically were unopposed in sinking whatever they wanted to. With the Germans closing in, it looked like all was lost- until German General Ruhnstedt order the advance to be stopped. To date, no one really knows why he ordered the halt, but Hitler at first agreed with the order and then changed his mind. During the stop of that advance, the BEF was able to shore up their defenses and start working on an evacuation plan.
And this is where the movie drops you in. But mind you, the "war movie" aspect of this movie isn't really what it's about- I mean, there is a war going on, but.....well, we'll get to that. Let's go with the war stuff first.
I'm a HUGE stickler for accurate representation when people do movies about historic things, especially WWII. I've got a friggin' eagle eye for all kinds of things like whether or not the uniform colors are right, the gear they carry, if they're wearing their uniforms correctly, the trucks, the tanks- I can spot a fake a mile away. I can also spot a bad process, salute and slang - especially the Germans (because I'm fluent in it) - and if the transgression is bad enough (meaning "not really that bad" or "it doesn't really affect the movie") it'll ruin the whole thing for me, and everyone within earshot of me will know about it. Yeah. I suck that way, and I've ruined many a movie for my wife in doing this. I can't help it, tho....
So, how did Nolan fair on this? He didn't miss a single, solitary thing. He even got the squadron tail numbers on the Spitfires right. The ME-109's (the German fighter planes) had the correct period markings and were the correct variants for that year. The British destroyers (they were actually old French ones that they doctored) were appointed correctly. The British AA (anti aricraft) guns were right, and the soldiers were carrying the correct rifles, gear and ammunition. The sounds of German artillery rounds as they came in were correct. And here's the best part- the sound made by the German Stuka dive bombers were frighteningly accurate- you see, the German pilots had sirens attached the bomber's wheel fairings to make this awful screeching noise as they dove on their targets- and Nolan got that completely correct. (BTW- there are no known actual Junkers JU87 Stukas still flying, so whatever they used for them, they did a good job on them. CGI? Maybe. I couldn't tell- it was that good)
In short, Nolan nailed that part of it, and I think that's a great thing, because to do all those things meant that he respected the story enough to make it look and feel correct, right down the most minute of details.
But, here's the deal: even though those things are important to me, the fact is that the overall tone and thrust of this movie makes those things completely unimportant- even to me.
And that brings me to the "not a war movie" thing I mentioned earlier. This isn't a war movie- it's a disaster movie wrapped up in a war. And that makes it very different.
In every war movie I've ever seen (and that's A LOT OF THEM) there's always one guy who knows something about what's going on in a larger-than-life kind of way. I've never been in combat, but I have some very close friends who are decorated combat vets from some recent wars, but also friends and relatives who have fought in Korea, Vietnam and in WWII (and on the German side at that) and the one thing they always tell me is that when you are in combat, there may be someone who knows what's going on, but they're not talking. Yes, there's a team mentality, but the fact of the matter is that actual combat is so traumatic and brutal that even the most hardened of soldiers stop talking and just start reacting. As a rule, when you meet a former combat vet, they really don't have a lot to say about the combat- they'll talk about the buddies they lost or how bad the food was and how tired they were, but the actual fighting- nothing.
That's because it defies description.
Most of the guys in the BEF in 1940 were between the ages of 18 and 22. (Most soldiers are of that age, actually- a guy John Wayne's age did NOT serve in a front line, and if he did, it was because he pissed someone off and got sent there as punishment, not a commanding officer) In addition to literally just being out of high school, these kids didn't have a ton of experience in combat, either in serving or even hearing about it, since Britain hadn't had a real fight in almost 25 years at that point. To say these kids were "green" is a vast understatement. And more than that- they had just been through 3 weeks of constant harassment by artillery bombardment, strafing by fighter planes, dive bombers, snipers, tanks and landmines.
In the movie, Nolan recreates the absolute DREAD from the kids by having almost no dialog. Short of Hans Zimmer's percussive score and the screaming of overhead Stukas, there's almost no noise and no words. He heightens this sense of foreboding by using overly long, single shots with no dialog for many, many minutes. The beach at Dunkirk is full of queued up soldiers, staring at the sea and not saying a word, which adds to the surrealism. Also to heighten the whole sense of confusion, we don't know many of the soldier's names or backgrounds. (Cillian Murphy is credited as "Shivering Man")
The story is told from 3 viewpoints- land, sea and air - and at times it's a little confusing as to what you are watching. That also adds to the overall confusion of trying to figure out how to get 400,000 men home- which is so close they can all see it.
This movie is what I'd like to call "an ant colony" movie- we don't have any larger-than-life characters here. We have a tremendously large group of very scared little boys who just want to go home alive and have no idea how to do it- and while these nameless, faceless boys scurry around to find a way they look like ants in a colony. They have a basic hierarchical structure that they obey, but they will throw aside the rules in a hot second if that means that there's even a chance they can get home, which makes the ant colony seem formless and void. Nolan keeps that pressure on you like a vise, relentlessly throughout the picture; ever tightening to a climax we just can't even imagine.
As a pure war movie, this picture fails epically- but as a picture of society at it's level worst and just trying to function it succeeds wildly. I was absolutely enthralled throughout the movie, because it has a rich undercurrent of double-entendre mixed up with a sense of dread I've never actually experienced before. Yes, there is a triumph of human spirit here and that is palpable, but what's very cool about that is that the characters get to see a bit of that themselves and are surprised by it in the end.
To the Brits, the 8 days between May 28 and June 4, 1940, Dunkirk was considered a colossal military failure on a monumental scale, and is still held that way by the British Military to this day. Nolan doesn't stray far from that notion, but this move is far from a failure, and is without a doubt one of the finest "military focused" movies I've ever seen, and is Nolan's absolute best work to date. If he doesn't get Academy Awards for this, there is absolutely no justice in this world.