Ahead of the release of Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated Oppenheimer in theaters a little over a month from now, Netflix has just added one of the director’s older movies that actually serves as the perfect prelude to his new biopic about the father of the atomic bomb. While Oppenheimer dramatizes the scientific achievement that brought about the end of World War II, Nolan’s 2017 film Dunkirk that’s now available to stream on Netflix, focuses on a giant rescue operation that unfolded in the early days of the war.
In short, hundreds of thousands of British soldiers had found themselves practically encircled by Nazis on the French beaches at Dunkirk, the sea at their back. The soldiers were sitting ducks, just wanting to be strafed by Luftwaffe pilots whose Stuka dive bombers screamed across the sky like demons before raining down a shower of bullets. A hasty yet daring rescue plan that called for British civilians to sail from the other side of the water to help ferry the boys to safety turned out to be a masterstroke, preserving England’s fighting force for the trials ahead.
I think what I appreciated most about Dunkirk was its ground-level perspective, putting us in the boots and in the cramped cockpits of the individual soldiers doing the fighting and the dying. That approach produced so many unforgettable moments, starting with the opening scene — when a small band of British soldiers is trudging wordlessly through an empty town. A breeze is blowing sheets of paper all around them. They’re propaganda leaflets, warning ominously: “We surround you.”
One of the young men reaches through an open window, picking up a loose cigarette. As soon as he brings it to his lips, the crack of rifle fire breaks the silence. The soldiers make a mad dash toward cover, toward safety, and one by one, they’re cut down. The scene is incredibly tense, as just one of them makes it over a wall. His gun jams. He abandons it in frustration and immediately runs into … a French machine gun nest that starts shooting at him. It’s an utterly terrifying opening that gets your heart racing. And if by chance you weren’t fully dialed in yet, Dunkirk now had your undivided attention.
I can’t praise the film highly enough. The dogfight scenes, in which Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden portray RAF pilots, are also some of the most pulse-pounding and intense of any war film, ever. Everything, down to the smallest detail, pulls you into those scenes, including the rattle of turbulence that gives Hardy’s voice a shaky and unnerving quality when he’s using his radio. No less than three actual Spitfires were used for these scenes.
It’s the ending of Dunkirk, however, that really takes your breath away. Weaving in Winston Churchill’s defiant June 1940 speech to the House of Commons (“We shall fight on the beaches …”), Nolan pairs the sight of a welcome reception for a trainload of rescued soldiers with Hardy’s character stoically facing his German captors. The flames of his downed plane stand in contrast to the voiceover of Churchill’s rousing speech, which promises that in spite of the disaster that unfolded at Dunkirk — “We shall go on to the end.”
What else to watch: Dunkirk is most definitely worth seeking out on Netflix if you didn’t get to see it in theaters or even just for a re-watch. And if you need more ideas for what to stream next, you can also get some other ideas from our recent Netflix coverage highlights below.