All We Did Was Survive: Dunkirk Is Masterfully Suspenseful and Gorgeous

In May and June of 1940, allied soldiers largely from Britain and France were surrounded by the German army, driven toward France’s Dunkirk beach, trapped. Years later, Christopher Nolan and his wife and producer, Emma Thomas made the trip across the English Channel to Dunkirk themselves — “It was very difficult … 19 days, and that was without being shot at” —  and thus began the director’s vision of this film.

Nolan’s somber march into the fog of battle is astoundingly accurate; dropped into the middle of a young soldier’s unfolding discovery of circumstance, a quiet ticking kicks off and runs throughout the Hans Zimmer score. Escalating desperation fills in every open pore, as he and we come to comprehend every moment is filled with the tension of knowing his next step, move … breath could be the last, and together, we wait, feel death and dying surround us. Nearly bloodless, and with minimal dialogue — Nolan’s script was a mere 76 pages —  we follow Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) through alternately haunting silence, and deafeningly loud sounds of war to incredible effect; if immersion is the thing, welcome to being smack dab in the middle of real life horror.

Shot on 70 mm IMAX film, and in parts with a modified (vertical) camera designed by Cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar, Spectre, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), the air sequences take viewers to unfathomable new and sweeping heights. Aided by (stunt coordinator, Tom Struthers’ idea of) a double-cockpit “Soviet era Romanian plane called a Yak” (modified to look like the British Spitfires also used), with real pilots flying and actors (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden) behind them, allowed the planes to be shot in camera, and in formation, leading to spectacular, breathtakingly beautiful aerial scenes and a feeling of actually flying with pilots. A plane goes down, so we go; a soldier is drowning, and our own chests tighten. It is at once, thrilling and horrifically real.

Mastering suspense in the air, at sea and on land, Nolan expertly weaves three main viewpoints throughout Dunkirk to a perfect crescendo. Action is interspersed with equally fearsome quiet … waiting for out of nowhere, a boom, a shot, a bomber’s overwhelming screech; audience heartbeats pound in competition with the building score, neither of which ever seems to ease up. The confusion of every single second, not ever knowing when or where an attack will come, expecting something every second; this snapshot of war is as all, utter hell.

Mired and trapped in unending anguish is difficult enough for experienced soldiers; for young men (“We send our children”), bewilderment and disorientation are their entirety. Relative newcomer, Whitehead is well cast; he and first-timer, Harry Styles set the tone with Tommy and Alex’s quiet desperation, an unspoken understanding and a sort of kinship unfolds between them in the way of circumstance, as it naturally would. Mostly unknowns are used for the majority of soldiers, a wise decision that could have been carried all the way through. To that point, though all the actors are excellent, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, James D’Arcy and even Kenneth Branagh are unnecessary here as other than box office draw; the one exception is Mark Rylance. His stalwart (civilian) Mr. Dawson jumps off the screen, straight into the hearts of every Brit, and injecting a bit of that interminable ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ into us all, regardless of homeland.

There’s a sterility about Dunkirk that may leave some (including myself) cold. It’s impossible not to compare it with Saving Private Ryan, another epic beach war film, and one that finds the emotional connection Dunkirk lacks. Knowing the puddle I was reduced to at the outset of Spielberg’s masterpiece, I arrived at the screening, wad of tissues in my pocket, which turned out to be wholly unnecessary. Throughout Dunkirk, between the incessant tick-tick-ticking (modeled after a particular sound one of Nolan’s own watches makes), the plunking of bullets hitting, screams of planes and booming bombs, I waited for tears that never came and in the aftermath, I’ve come to the conclusion the emptiness is a calculated one. As with Cillian Murphy’s nameless, shellshocked soldier, unable to feel or express in any truly responsive way, the experience of war often leaves only desolation; even victory can feel strangely hollow. As an incredulous soldier numbly utters, upon seeing a cheering throng at his return home, “All we did was survive”; at Dunkirk’s end, we understand exactly what he means.

Dunkirk stars Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Harry Styles, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, James D’Arcy, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance,  Barry Keoghan and Michael Caine (voice cameo); it’s in theaters beginning tomorrow, July 21st.

Cindy Davis

Cindy Davis

Cindy Davis has been writing about the entertainment industry for ​over seven years, and is the ​Editor-in-Chief at Oohlo, where she muses over television, movies, and pop culture. Previous Senior News Editor at Pajiba, and published at BUST.

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  • denesteak

    I saw it last night and thought it was amazing. I’m not a war movie person at all, though I am a big fan of Nolan, and I only saw it because a friend picked it…. but I was totally blown away by how fucking tense the whole movie was. I had my hands up to my face the entire time, and the score was soooo good.

    • Yes, from the second it opens, the score and that feeling of waiting for something horrible, are intense.