Why was Dunkirk a summer release? True, it’s a war movie, and one with a large cast and presumably a large budget. But director Christopher Nolan is trying to tell a story here he’s been trying to tell for years that could just as easily be a prestige winter release.
How successful is he?
Dunkirk is told in three settings. The first is “The Mole,” the patch of beach where the English army is holed up awaiting a hopeful evacuation home to England before the Germans can wipe them out during World War II. That story takes place in the span of a week. The second is “The Sea,” where a civilian boater, his son, and his son’s friend set sail to help with the evacuation. Their story spans a day. Finally, there’s “The Air,” where a pair of RAF pilots are providing what cover they can to ships and those on the beach alike. That story spans an hour.
The historic Evacuation of Dunkirk is in the history books, so the outcome of the movie shouldn’t be too surprising. However, Nolan made some smart choices here. He opens the movie with the evacuation in full swing, with all the chaos and conflict that comes with that. Many of the young men on the beach in “The Mole” are being played by unknown actors (the recognizable faces are saved for officers, and the other two stories), to further show their lack of experience. However, both the evacuation and the ultimate outcome of the war are unknown to the characters themselves. They don’t know if they’ll be getting off that beach or if England will win the war itself, and it shows. There’s confusion, panic attacks, and the civilian boat in “The Sea”‘s first rescue is a single survivor of a sunken ship suffering from PTSD. Not all the characters are going to make it, between the U-boats and the strafing attacks from the German air forces.
As such, the movie doesn’t make the final outcome, where a soldier named Tommy manages to get home to England, as a moment for him to celebrate. Sure, the civilians around him are cheering for the soldiers returning from the continent, but he doesn’t feel like cheering. Dunkirk was, of course, an evacuation necessitated by a military retreat. And, as noted, the war isn’t over yet, so for the young soldiers there’s the knowledge that though they are safely back in England, that is a temporary relief and as much as Winston Churchill’s grand speech on how much the English will fight the Germans and never surrender, it is these young men, who just escaped a harrowing experience, who will be doing all the fighting.
Clocking in at under two hours, Nolan has told a surprisingly simple story for a man known for complex plots. It is that simplicity that lends Dunkirk its power, as we see not so much a moment in military history worth celebrating, but the prelude to a longer struggle taking shape for people who have no idea what the future holds. Nine out of ten Dutch trawler captains.