The gun shots ring in your ear.
You hear the boots thudding on the ground. Then realise they are yours.
The bullets go whizzing by. When they miss you, you are relieved.
But in horror you see they’ve gotten the man next to you.
You run from fear.
From the smell of death.
From the taste of gun powder in your mouth.
From the noise and the fire.
And the only thought you have is to survive.
Dunkirk starts on a feverish pitch and just never lets up. It keeps swinging you precariously between the action on the beach, the battle in the air and the smoke and oil and fire on the high seas. It bombards your ears with gun shots, torpedoes and bullets followed by agonising screams of human suffering. It oscillates wildly between coasts, between daytime and nighttime, between hope and disappointment, between life and death.
And Christopher Nolan manages all this without a dramatic hero, theatrical dialogue delivery or one single story line. It’s war on an as-is-where-is basis. This is what it is. This is the gore and gruesomeness of war – not the outward spillage of blood, not the cruel torture but the inward dying of human beings, the cruel need for every man to survive, the reason for every person to live and finally the futility of war and the resulting loss. And some deaths are like that. Futile. Nameless. Without a reason.
But you are still on edge because something or the other is always happening. And you are constantly watching over your shoulder. And just when there is a ray of hope out comes another bombardment and you’re thrown back in the cold choppy waters without a life jacket. And even when the scene shifts to where there is peace the shadow of war looms large or small – in the shape of life jackets piled up without count, for the rescue.
Nolan runs three parallel tracks, three timelines, multiple characters and keeps us relentlessly on the emotional roller coaster till the ships finally see the English coastline and even then it’s not a feeling of triumph but the bitterness of disappointment, the feeling of loss and having lost, the dejection and despair of defeat.
And in this chaos and mayhem, humanity cuts through like a thin shard of light – just for a little bit but in all its heroism. Take for example the Captain. In the atmosphere of fear and distrust, the Captain stands steadfast almost like a beacon on the beach seeing the men through. And when he is done with the English he waits back for the French. And the civilian boat owner who has lost one of his sons to the war has that much more patience for another victim of the war.
And then there is failure. Disappointment. Anger. Frustration. Defeat. Dejection.
“That man didn’t even look us in the eye…” says Harry Stiles in the end as he hangs his head in shame. The other guy who has an explanation for it, chooses not to say a word.
Really, what do you say about war. What do you say about death when it stares you in the face. Not one time. Not two times. But time after time. All in the span of one night. Or one day. Or one week. Without a let up?
Towards the end, the Air Force pilot who has run out of fuel slowly chugs his way to a desolate part of the beach, lands, sets his aircraft on fire and surrenders to the enemy. That’s what happens to you in this film. You just succumb at the beaches of Dunkirk, a complete surrender to a page of history come alive. Thanks to Christopher Nolan.