You probably know already that Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk has received rave reviews and has also done very well at the box office.

It is indeed an incredible film—visually astounding, complex in its plot structure, and profound in its portrayal of humanity.

Other than that confirmation, I would like pass on some viewing tips based on comments I heard in the audience around me when the credits rolled at the end of the film.

“I need to read up on Dunkirk. I didn’t know anything about that evacuation,” said the man behind me.

It is essential to understand that the film is about a retreat, what was initially a deep humiliation. In May 1940, when Hitler’s army blitzed its way around France’s eastern defenses and invaded from the north, British, Belgian, and French troops were cut off in the northwest corner of France. They retreated to the French town of Dunkirk and assembled on the beach, waiting to be evacuated to England across the English Channel.

But how to evacuate over 300,000 soldiers, especially with Nazi planes attacking boats at sea and the soldiers on the beach? With the help of the Royal Air Force and an armada of ships big and small, most of the soldiers were saved.

If you want to know more, multiple websites offer in-depth descriptions of the event and debates about its historical accuracy. The main thing to remember is that this is a film about survival, about trying to escape from what seems like a true dead end.

“I was tense through the entire film!” said the lady right beside me.

The film will indeed have you gripping your armrests. The main character, a British private named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) goes from peril to peril as he tries to get off the beach, yet meets disaster after disaster. The film also portrays extremely claustrophobic scenes of confinement and drowning.

At the same time, the film offers breathtaking views of land, sea, and sky. Nolan used large- format cameras to make the movie—and the images are especially impressive on the supersized IMAX screen. Often, I wanted to stop the film to study a frame and its careful composition.

In addition to striking images, the brooding score by Hans Zimmer hums in the background and then intensifies during scenes of peril. I had the impression the score sped up with my racing heartbeat.
In short, Dunkirk offers an intense experience, but do enjoy its startling visual and aural beauty.

“The timeline wasn’t very clear, especially at the end,” said a somewhat grumpy young man in a back row.

I was tempted to shout back: “Dude, it’s a Christopher Nolan movie! What did you expect?” As writer-director of films such as Memento and Inception, Nolan is a master of head-scratching, time-bending narratives.

In the case of Dunkirk, Nolan uses his skills not to “mess” with the viewer but to offer three different perspectives on an event. First, Tommy and a ragtag group of desperate soldiers try to escape from the land. Second, as part of the group of civilian boats requisitioned by the Royal Navy, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and friend George (Barry Keoghan), pilots his own yacht toward Dunkirk. Finally, a group of Royal Air Force pilots (with Tom Hardy in a principal role), leave England in their Spitfires to offer air protection.

As the film progresses, the narratives intertwine and time becomes distorted, simply because planes go faster than boats and soldiers on foot. As a result, images go between light and dark, day and night—which clearly confused the viewer behind me. However, consider how the changes in light mirror the situation and intensify the drama. It’s an awesome feat of film editing.

“It’s a war movie,” said another woman beside me. “I liked it a lot, but can only give it nine out of 10 because it’s a war movie,” she explained.

I can understand her war-movie fatigue. The film shows war plane dogfights and U-boat torpedoes zooming toward an unprotected boat—all scenes that are part of so many war films. Yet I would argue that Dunkirk brings a fresh approach to the genre.

Aside from its technical bravura, the film succeed by showing virtually anonymous characters who demonstrate a range of human emotions and actions in the face of grave danger. Tommy and his fellow soldiers act at times shamefully in their attempts to survive. By contrast, Mr. Dawson and his son are models of humble courage and empathy as they aid escaping soldiers onto their boat. Even in the face of defeat, the RAF pilots remain defiant, turning tragedy into victory.

And while some characters are far from perfect, all offer acts of heroism, both great and small—all pointing to hope. Hope for England at that time in 1940, and hope for humanity, when ordinary people are willing to sacrifice themselves for others. (In that context, I couldn’t help wonder how much the film stands in opposition to post-Brexit isolationism.)

When the multiplex starts to sound like a college classroom, you know you have just seen a powerful film. Do see Dunkirk—and if you can, see it in IMAX! (Warner Bros.)

About the Author

Otto Selles teaches French at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich., and attends Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids.