The film follows three storylines that take place during the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940. By land, we watch a handful of English soldiers try to unsuccessfully escape the beaches that are pounded by German planes and bombers. By air, a small squadron of English fighter pilots do their best to defend the escaping boats. By sea, a civilian mariner takes it upon himself to steer his yacht towards Dunkirk to rescue whatever survivors he can find. Big names occupy the roles of these soldiers and civilians, but they’ll spend most of the movie doing their duty rather than chit-chatting, however, as there isn’t much time for drama during a crucial evacuation.
Nolan plays the ultimate editor of his calculated war film. He refuses to pad the picture out with character introductions or scene-stopping exposition or passages. All he gives us is a brief opening text of the current battle in Dunkirk, the length of each storyline and nothing more. Dialogue is sparse as the picture jumps directly into the conflict with a laser-focus on the various mission. From the very first frame, the film puts a chokehold on the audience and never lets go, refusing to let the war be an excuse for melodrama.
Without proper character introductions, Dunkirk may seem to be an uninvolving tale with characters we really don’t care enough about to see them make it out of the situation alive. But do we really need such build-up? What more do we need to know about these soldiers to appreciate their story and hope they can avoid German gunfire and bombings?
Nolan fictionalized the characters and we can probably guess the backstories of a few of them. Some of them have some small traits revealed; a teenager speaks of always wanting to be in the paper while on his dead bed and a silent soldier hides his nationality by stealing an English soldier’s uniform. I only wish there were a few more nuggets of character if only to tell the ground soldiers apart in scenes where they all scurry for cover and abandon every sinking ship.