The movie has an interesting structure, with three braided narratives that eventually meet. The first is titled “The Mole: One Week.” This follows the events on the Dunkirk beaches and nearby, focusing on a British soldier who isn’t necessarily an example of stoic discipline while trying to get off the beach and back to England. “The Sea: One Day” follows one of the British “small ships” answering the call to aid the evacuation, and its voyage to and from the zone of danger. “The Air: One Hour” deals with a sortie of three British Spitfire fighters whose mission is to protect the beaches and sea lanes, and drive away the Luftwaffe bombers. The film shift from narrative to narrative was of necessity not in overall chronological order, so it took me a bit to put things together, but, once I did, I was struck by admiration for the skill of the story telling. As the film nears its climax, the three stories come together in increasing tempo, and you see the same events from as many as three different viewpoints.
While the presence of masterful actors such as Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance enhance the picture, the compelling story is the main event, and the actions of the desperate soldier, the intrepid pilots, and the boys who go along to Dunkirk to “do something” predominate.
Military history buff that I am, of course there are a few quibbles. The beaches are attacked several times by Stuka (Junkers Ju. 87) dive-bombers. The Stuka, a pre-war design, at that time typically carried a single large bomb slung under the fuselage, and in a couple of scenes you can see one bomb separate from the attacking plane. However, on the ground, this results in a “stick” of eight explosions, as though the site was bombed by one of the larger multi-engine bomber types.
British shipping is also awfully fragile, at least for dramatic purposes. We see three British ships get sunk, one by a submarine, and two by bombing. All three capsized to the starboard side before sinking, which seems unlikely.
We always stay through the credits, and I got a substantial thrill seeing that twelve of the “small ships” that took part in the Dunkirk evacuation were used in the making of the movie.