You may think you know what happens in Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk.” Maybe you read the Wikipedia page on the Battle of Dunkirk. (Maybe you even — gasp — read a book on it.) It’s no spoiler to say that the evacuation of 400,000 English soldiers from northern France, all while they were surrounded by German troops, was a success. It is a spoiler to say what happens before the coast is clear and our boys are safely en route across the Channel to home.
Nolan splits the film in three ways, and in a highly unusual way, even for him. Each thread takes up three different lengths of time: The story of the soldiers on land takes up a week; the story of the English civilians who boated across the Channel encompasses a day; the story of the pilots who fought off German planes comprises an hour. Nolan jumps between these, meshing them into one 107-minute montage. Here’s what we see — and these words can’t hold a candle to actually witnessing the insanity onscreen:
1. The Mole (by land)
The closest thing “Dunkirk” has to a protagonist is named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a private who looks to be about 19, maybe 20. We watch as he undergoes all manner of near-misses and near-deaths. He crams onto a boat that is then sunk, then miraculously escapes. He lays on the beach, which is then peppered with German bombs, but isn’t among those blown to smithereens. He befriends fellow privates (including one played by Harry Styles) in the hope that there’s safety in numbers. He’s a rando who could either be one who perishes or one who survives. He survives, joining the many who, after a week, are spirited away on a boat, then put on a train, ready to go home.
2. The Sea
His name is Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), and he owns a little yacht. It’s what will be the last day of the Dunkirk evacuation, and he — along with his son and his friend — cruise out into the Channel, hoping to rescue men who’ve been shot down in planes or sunk while in boats. They find a man credited only as “Shivering Soldier” (Cillian Murphy), who was one of the latter. Shivering Soldier is aghast when Mr. Dawson says they’re driving right into Dunkirk, into hell. He tries to stop him, and in his fury accidentally knocks the son’s friend down, hitting his head. The son’s friend later dies from his wounds.
Eventually, Mr. Dawson nears Dunkirk, only to find he’s one of countless who had the same idea. The civilian boats are able to transport as many as they can across the Channel, back to the safety of home.
3. The Air
Tom Hardy plays Farrier, an RAF pilot, who spends most of the movie shooting down German planes. One of his colleagues, name of Collins (Jack Lowden), is shot down, but he doesn’t die. He is, however, trapped in the cockpit as the aircraft sinks into the Channel. Mr. Dawson cruises by in his boat, and manages to help Collins to safety. Meanwhile, Farrier manages to take out the remainder of the German planes, securing the Dunkirk region and making it safe for everyone to boat home. Farrier’s plane, however, suffers a technical breakdown. He manages to sail it through the sky, landing it safely on the beach. Farrier exits, shoots the plane with his flaregun and watches it as it burns, right before he’s captured by German soldiers.