Every so often a moviemaker delivers a film so daring, an approach so original, an experience so memorable that, at first, the words to review don’t come. Somehow any description of the moment feels insignificant. And the movie deserves more.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk defies any expectation of a big budget summer blockbuster about World War II. Hollywood has trained us to expect certain conventions in these stories. We know we will see big battles, feel personal sacrifice and emerge with renewed appreciation for sacrifice. Think Saving Private Ryan. Patton. Bridge on the River Kwai. Classic films teach us about war and what to expect in movies about war.

But Dunkirk refuses to follow the rules of these classics. Yes, we see conflict, but well into the narrative after we begin to absorb the bravery. Yes, we encounter colorful characters, but in the context of the narrative. But we don't hear majestic speeches about the meaning of such moments. In fact, we hear little dialogue, as if the director knows the number of words a powerful picture can be worth.

Dunkirk is not a by-the-books war film. It moves, at one moment, at breakneck speed, then dares to slow, almost to a halt. It mixes the timelines of narratives, freely moving from day to night to day without concern. And it moves on from heroic moments as quickly as in real life. Dunkirk celebrates the scope of accomplishment by focusing on little moments. As if creating a pointillist painting, Nolan develops each element of his film and trusts us to stand back and see what picture he creates. The result astounds. And, in the giant IMAX theater at the Maritime Aquarium of South Norwalk, the film delivers visual chills.

The facts behind the movie are chilling enough. In 1940 some 340,000 Allied soldiers find themselves stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk in northern France. The war the US has yet to enter could be over soon unless these helpless men find ways to return to England to regroup. When standard approaches, and big boats, fail to rescue, everyday citizens become the last hope for survival as recreational boaters cross the channel to pick up anyone they can. From their efforts, hope may emerge.

We experience this story through the eyes of everyday people. One man converts his pleasure boat into a vessel of survival. One soldier, at a young age, tries every way to survive the horror of war. And one brave pilot knows the job he is intended to complete regardless of its cost. In a conventional film, we might listen to their words about the meaning behind their actions. But Nolan refuses to make it that easy. He makes us get to know these men through the actions they take as if daring us to look beyond conventional movie notions about truth. This daring choice that enables the movie to move beyond the ordinary to become oh, so special. Especially in IMAX.

Nolan also chooses to tell this intense story of war with minimal blood. It’s as though, because he trusts us to realize what war requires, he doesn’t need to exaggerate the gore. Instead he shares defining moments of real people becoming real heroes. Just when our world needs real heroes.

(Five Popcorn Buckets. Read more about films about war in the Reel Dad, below.)

Film Nutritional Value: Dunkirk

  • Content: High. Moviemaker Christopher Nolan creates a meaningful look at how people survive intense moments of war.
  • Entertainment: High. Despite the severity of the content, Nolan creates a visually fascinating film made even more spectacular on the IMAX screen .
  • Message: High. While absorbing as a movie, Dunkirk has a lot to say about the inventive choices people make to survive.
  • Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk with older children about bravery is time well spent.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After sharing this film with older children, take time to talk about how they see the heroism in everyday people.

Like Dunkirk, Saving Private Ryan celebrates heroism

by Mark Schumann

The Reel Dad

In war, heroism may emerge from many sources.

Christopher Nolan’s masterful Dunkirk veers from the conventions of many Hollywood takes on World War II, especially Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning Saving Private Ryan.

Anyone curious about what creates a hero should take a fresh look at this film’s recreation of dramatic moments during the war.

Like the characters in Dunkirk, not every hero in Ryan has to be a loud leader who pushes with bravado. Nor must every brave fighter be a career officer. In many wars, the “citizen soldier” – the one who leaves a different life at home to serve – is the real hero who makes a difference to the cause and others in uniform.

Saving Private Ryan looks inside the minds of such “citizen soldiers” who find themselves caught in the frenzy following the Allied invasion of France on D-Day in June 1944. These are not extraordinary men; they are simply soldiers doing their jobs, longing for home, searching for answers. Through their eyes, the horror and heroism of D-Day comes to life in a graphic yet accessible recreation of this landmark event of World War II and the days that immediately follow.

So many films document the events of World War II that a film must bring something that differs from the others. While many movies about war focus on traditional heroism, Saving Private Ryan explores the average working soldier who simply does a job to enable the heroes to declare victory. Rarely has a film been populated with so many “every man” characters. Nothing about these men would cause you to take a second look as you pass on the street. Nothing in their backgrounds explains why they find themselves in such extraordinary situations.

When it opened in 1998, Saving Private Ryan was most celebrated for the cinematic virtuosity of its daring opening sequence that recreates the landings on Omaha Beach on D-Day. Director Steven Spielberg treats the event as if creating a dynamic short film that ultimately introduces the main feature. Never has a film captured such a sequence in such a brutal, authentic way, as the bullets fly and the blood flows. That anyone survived the landing seems amazing after absorbing this sequence that, by itself, would be a classic nutritional moment in film; as the start of this meaningful journey it begins a most engaging movie experience.

As much impact as these 20 minutes create, what is nourishing about this film is what we learn later in the film about the soldiers fighting that day. They simply want to finish up and go home. To resume their lives becomes a reason to fight for their lives.

In every war, the career officers lead the everyday soldiers to the necessary places to fight the battles. Day in and out, the soldier carries through the leader’s order. This film helps us understand that, no matter how much they believe in what they do, those who carry out the orders are often just hoping to get home.

War creates heroes; people need heroes, the media celebrates heroes. As we learn in Saving Private Ryan many heroic moments are never noted, many brave people never remembered. But they are the foundation for any military success. And, as we experience in this film, and in Dunkirk, they make the difference.