10 Things Parents Should Know About ‘Dunkirk’

Reading Time: 5 minutes

1. What’s it about?

As France began its fall to German forces, British, French and other soldiers were pushed to edge of the sea at Dunkirk, France in late May, 1940. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk tells the story about the mass evacuation from the perspectives of those on land, sea, and air.

Four hundred thousand of them waited on the beach, being picked off by German air raids. More than 300,000 were eventually rescued from the beaches by the British navy and by citizens who piloted their own vessels to bring the British soldiers (and their allies) home. But for better than eight days, Dunkirk was a very frightening place to wait.

2. Will I like it?

When I left the theater, I felt a sense of relief; I realized I felt like I hadn’t really taken a breath for two hours. That’s how intense Dunkirk is. It is powerful and moving and bleak and desperate and terrifying.

Dunkirk is very much an unconventional war movie, a slaughter with a low body count — at least shown on screen. It has overlapping time lines, featureless backgrounds, and an erratic score, all made to throw viewers off and give them a sense of unease. There’s no backstory for most of the characters, adding to the puzzlement, yet for the important scenes, a lot of it is shot very close and tight, creating an intimate feeling with the actors. What’s more, most of the shots were done with practical effects and minimized CGI, making everything seem much more real.

It is very special moviemaking. I got home after seeing it and just stared at the table for a bit because it was a lot to take in. I’m quite eager to go see it again to really cast a critical eye at it to find out if it is truly as great as I think it is. Dunkirk is a lock as a best picture nominee.

3. Will my kids like it?

That’s tough to say. My daughters really want to go see it because of Harry Styles. I had to ask about who he is because I’m apparently that old now. It turns out that he used to be in a band called One Direction and is pretty hunky, a description that will likely cause my daughters to cringe because of my aforementioned age.

No matter, this Harry Styles character did a fine job, as did the rest of the cast. I believe your kids’ enjoyment of Dunkirk will be dependent on their maturity and age. As I mention below, it is movie driven by what is not said, as much as the dialogue, of which there is little, and if your child is not able to appreciate a very serious film, they most likely will not like Dunkirk.

4. Why is it PG-13?

For a war movie, there is very little blood. There is some minor cursing, the ratings board tells me, though I can’t really recall any instances after the fact. The real reason for the rating is “intense war experience,” with an emphasis on intense. There is nothing overly objectionable for kids to see, especially if they are regular viewers of PG-13 movies.

However it’s a possibility that there isn’t enough for younger kids to hold their attention. There is precious little dialogue in the film, which adds to the anxious atmosphere of the movie, and while it is an outstanding film, it may be more than some kids can process.

5. Is ‘Dunkirk’ loud or scary?

As expected for a war film, there are screaming dive bombers, loud explosions, exploding ships, and surprising gunfire, all of which create an atmosphere that might be tough for kids with sensory sensitivity. It’s not scary, per se, but Nolan has masterfully created a film which puts you at unease from the opening frames to the very end. Everything about it is made to give you a sense of anxiety and stress. The soundtrack is continually hinting at impending doom. The death and damage the enemy does is seen, but the Germans are never really seen. There is much that is hinted at, which allows our brains to fill in the voids and worry more than how we might feel if it were actually seen.

6. Is there a time when I can sneak out to the bathroom?

I really advise against leaving the theater if you can. The story is so compelling and fast-moving that you don’t want to miss a scene if you can; Nolan is economical in storytelling this time and nary a scene is wasted. However, if it’s not preventable, there are two very short segments that produce a small window of time, at the 30 minute mark when toast is served with jam and around the 50 minute mark when a rowboat reaches shore.

7. Where does ‘Dunkirk’ rank among Christopher Nolan films?

It is incredibly impressive. Looking at Nolan’s résumé, it is apparent that he doesn’t back down from a challenge and the reviews and box office have rewarded him for his efforts. His version of Batman was better than any superhero movie ever made and Interstellar, Inception, Insomnia, and Memento all challenged theater-goers in ways most writer/directors aren’t willing to.

Dunkirk is different than all of those. It’s his first film based on reality and there must’ve been great pressure to get it right, given Dunkirk’s importance in his home of England.

War stories are usually fairly simple affairs. Most of the time, they are a dramatic retelling of a battle, framing one person or a group as heroes. This is not that. For two hours, nothing very good happens to anyone. It is a grim story about retreat; a film about failure — something we seldom see on the big screen. Yet, it is created so masterfully, the viewer feels every desperate moment, as if they were there. It’s a war movie like you’ve never seen with convention turned on its ear, a trait common to the director’s films. For these reasons, Dunkirk is sure to be remembered as one of Nolan’s greatest works.

Nolan has been compared to Stanley Kubrick at times and Dunkirk will likely draw comparisons to two Kubrick films: Paths of Glory, Kubrick’s war film that also paints a bleak picture of war and fighting men, and The Shining, for Kubrick’s methods of purposely putting the audience in a state of unease. The comparisons are fair and now, maybe, the parallels between these two, great directors will carry more weight.

8. Do I need to stay after the credits?

No, after the credits roll, there are no additional scenes.

9. Should I see it in 3-D?

It’s not being offered in 3-D, but it is showing in 70mm Imax. I saw it on a regular screen, but if you can see it in the 70mm format, definitely do that. Not only are many of the scenes framed perfectly for a 70mm experience, I imagine the bigger screen will only enhance the immersive experience that Dunkirk presents.

10. Is there anything else I need to know?

The music is amazing, as one might expect from Hans Zimmer. And, as this may be Nolan’s best film, it is likely Zimmer’s best work, as well. A movie’s sound does as much to set a movie’s mood as the script and cinematography do and the score to Dunkirk does its job overly well. A recurring audio theme throughout Dunkirk is the frantic ticking of the clock, signifying the soldiers’ urgency to leave, the boats captains’ haste to arrive, the pilots’ need to provide defense and their dwindling fuel. It is electrifying.

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