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Dunkirk Movie Review: How Plot vs. Characterization Carries the Movie Forward

Most summer blockbusters involve daring superheroes, riveting romance, some sort of extraterrestrial creature, or all three. Subverting these expectations, Christopher Nolan’s film, Dunkirk, is a movie based on the real Battle of Dunkirk, which occurred at the beginning of World War Two in June of 1940. 400,000 British and French soldiers were stranded on Dunkirk Beach, surrounded by German forces; there was seemingly no escape in sight. Through the tenacity of the Allied Forces and regular civilians of England and France, the majority of the soldiers were rescued from Dunkirk. Nolan’s film takes you directly into the evacuation effort, making you feel as if you were really there.

Photo courtesy of Pexels

Unlike most war movies, Dunkirk lacks any true character exposition. The film begins with a few soldiers running through the city streets, and only one, a young man named Tommy (played by Fionn Whitehead; he gives an amazing performance in his first ever lead role), makes it to the beach. Here, the full implications of the situation fall upon him. As far as the eye can see, soldiers are lined up hopelessly on the sand, searching in vain for any ships that may come. As Tommy teams up with a few other soldiers to attempt to find passageway on the ships, the capricious nature of survival becomes apparent; young men seem almost interchangeable, a mass of humanity, with no rhyme or reason for who will make it off the beach. Although Dunkirk is entirely an action movie, with little dialogue and even less character background, the actors are able to convey the terror and adrenaline of their plight with stunning grace. Finn Whitehead truly carries the film, and fans of One Direction will be thrilled to see Harry Styles playing a character named Alex. It’s a testimony to his acting ability that he blends into the crowd; if you didn’t know how famous he is outside of the film, he wouldn’t stand out at all. Harry smoothly slides into the mass of soldiers, all struggling to survive.

While the soldiers stranded on Dunkirk Beach attempt to escape, British forces quickly fly through the air in Spitfire airplanes, shooting the German forces out of the sky; the Germans are bombing the beach, utilizing an equal measure of direct killing force and mere scare tactic on the soldiers stuck there. Tom Hardy (of Mad Max, The Dark Knight Rises, and Inception fame) is terrific in his role as one of the Spitfire pilots, conveying the despair and strength of spirit the British rescue force possessed.

As these two narratives are merged together, a third and final narrative of the film weaves in. A few dozen civilian boats come to serve the rescue attempt, and this aspect of the narrative focuses on one boat in particular. Two young men and an older gentleman, the father of one of the boys, plow through the ocean toward Dunkirk Beach. They rescue a soldier who was the only survivor from one of the numerous bombed evacuation ships, who also seems to be struggling with PTSD symptoms from the war. The kindness the civilians show to him, and their efforts to rescue everyone they could from Dunkirk, serves as a testimony to the British spirit and how even seemingly normal people can make a difference.

Dunkirk may very well be one of Christopher Nolan’s greatest works in the film industry. It’s a dizzyingly quick action story, with little characterization; war is the protagonist in this film, and it serves its purpose. Go see it in IMAX if possible; at the very least, make sure to go see it! It’s sure to be one of the biggest films of 2017.

Dunkirk is rated PG-13 for war violence and language. Its running time is 107 minutes.

Samantha is a sophomore at Bryn Mawr College majoring in English. She's originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and can confirm that the winters are just as cold as you've heard. She's passionate about books, writing, girls' education, and Harry Styles. If she's not in class, you can find her studying in the library, grabbing brunch with her friends, or taking a yoga class. If you want to read Samantha's past work, you can find it on the Her Campus Bryn Mawr section.
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