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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Dunkirk is director Christopher Nolan's World War II movie about the real-life incident in which Allied forces were surrounded and trapped on Dunkirk beach -- and everyday heroes helped rescue them, despite the risk of danger and death. The movie's war violence is realistic and intense, with heavy bombing and shooting and many deaths (though very little blood). Planes crash in the ocean, ships fill with water and sink, and an oil slick catches fire, burning many soldiers. A teen civilian is injured, and a man walks into the ocean, presumably to commit suicide. Language includes two uses of "f--k" and one "Christ" (as an exclamation), and there's one scene with beer. Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, and Cillian Murphy co-star, but there are many characters, some of whom aren't clearly distinguished from others. That, plus Nolan's time-twisting technique, can make the story challenging to follow. But it has messages of bravery, teamwork, and sacrifice, and persistent teens and adults will be rewarded with a powerful, visceral experience.
What's the story?
In DUNKIRK, it's 1940, and Allied soldiers in France are surrounded and forced onto the beach at Dunkirk. Amid the chaos, several English soldiers await some kind of transport back to England; at one point, they discover an abandoned, beached boat and hide inside to await high tide. Meanwhile, private English citizens who own boats have volunteered to cross the channel and pick up as many soldiers as they can carry. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) is one of them; along with two boys, he rescues a downed fighter pilot (Cillian Murphy). But tragedy awaits. Then another fighter pilot (Tom Hardy) crosses the channel, carefully conserving his fuel, when an enemy plane attacks. Back at the beach, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) waits on the dock for help to arrive.
Is it any good?
Christopher Nolan's first history movie is bold, visceral, and powerful, with many moving sequences -- though some of his filmmaking choices can be challenging. As with some of Nolan's other movies (especially his great Memento), Dunkirk experiments with time. The story's three sections are told at different rates; the beach sequences take place over one week, the boat sequence takes one day, and the plane sequences take one hour. But unlike in Memento, here, this technique lacks clarity, mainly because Nolan doesn't visually distinguish between many of the aircrafts or ships, nor does he make it easy to tell many of the young soldiers apart.
Dunkirk wants us to follow two of the soldiers in particular, but that becomes increasingly difficult, especially as they get covered in dirt and grime. Many characters also have thick English accents (to a U.S. ear, anyway), and the sound mixing and Hans Zimmer's heavy score often drown out the dialogue. All this can make the movie tricky to follow, especially if you don't have the option of subtitles. Sometimes it seems that Nolan is deliberately trying to strip his story of traditional character arcs and dialogue, perhaps to find its essence. This doesn't always work, but Dunkirk is such an immediate horrors-of-war experience, throwing the viewer so vividly into the picture, that it's difficult to dismiss.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Dunkirk's violence. How does this kind of violence compare to what you might see in a superhero movie? Which feels more intense/has a bigger impact? Why? Does the fact that it's not especially bloody/gory affect your reaction?
How does Dunkirk compare to other war movies you've seen? Is it more realistic? If so, how does it achieve that?
Were you able to tell all the characters and their sea crafts apart? Do you think the fact that many were similar was a specific choice? If so, what do you think the purpose of that choice was? (Some say that it parallels the chaos of actual war.)
- In theaters: July 21, 2017
- On DVD or streaming: December 19, 2017
- Cast: Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance
- Director: Christopher Nolan
- Studio: Warner Bros.
- Genre: Action/Adventure
- Topics: History
- Character Strengths: Courage, Teamwork
- Run time: 106 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: intense war experience and some language
- Awards/Honors: Academy Award
Themes & Topics
For kids who love historical epics
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Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.