Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is about a significant World War II episode--the evacuation of British Force from northern France after the battle of Dunkirk. It is the mark of a director at the peak of his prowess, that he can make a period film resonate in current times-- the British media has made the Brexit reference. And then, he makes a film with a deep emotional impact without any chest-beating melodrama.
In a scene, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), a young boy, asks soldiers in his boat to be careful because his wounded friend is lying there. The soldier tells him the friend is dead. Peter, with great control on his grief repeats his request; it is at the end the audience sees how the death of his friend has affected Peter. The film has many such powerful and still understated moments. It's not as if Nolan is indifferent to the grim excitement of war-- the aerial dog fights are majestic-- but what he focuses on is the wave after wave of tired young armymen just wanting to get home.
And home is a short distance across the channel, tantalisingly visible from the battered beach from where they are trying to escape as German bombs, submarines and torpedoes attack. Some manage to get aboard and overcrowded vessel only to be thrown back into the water again.
There are a few stars scattered among the cast-- Kenneth Branagh plays the weary commander, Tom Hardy a pilot, Harry Styles a soldier, Mark Rylance a patriotic Englishman out to help his compatriots-- but it is more about the collective fear, hope, courage, selfishness and generosity in a time of crisis. It is recorded in history that it was a group of civilians on their small boats who had braved enemy fire and helped in the massive evacuation. The scene of the brave little flotilla rescuing soldiers from the water and in the case of the heroic Mr Dawson (Marc Rylance), a downed pilot.
Nowhere does the film pump up jingoism. No German is seen, and no hysteria whipped up about the boys dying on the front. It’s a spectacle, a disaster movie and a film about the courage, compassion and survival all rolled into one.