A pilot in World War II wore a mask that effectively obscured his face except for his eyes, making it difficult for the audience to differentiate / identify which pilot is which. I imagine it makes it hard for the actor as well, reduced to his eyes, to act.
400,000 men were stranded on a beach in France, as Germans neatly picked these victims off a boatload at a time with falling bombs. Heroic civilians in pleasure craft, fishing boats, etc came to the rescue and evacuated the wounded and ferried the rest to England and home.
The anonymity and similar features of the cast must have been intentional, as well as the low profiles of the actors. Fionn Whitehead, a relative newcomer, plays Tommy, one of the ground troops.
The empathy for the characters has nothing to do with their story. I did not want to go through the dialogue, tell the story of my characters… The problem is not who they are, who they pretend to be or where they come from. The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it? Will they be killed by the next bomb while trying to join the mole? Or will they be crushed by a boat while crossing?
— Christopher Nolan on the main purpose of the film[ Premier magazine]
From land, sea and air the men were attacked. So many were killed– yet Tomm uses quick thinking and strategic actions: as he runs from enemy fire and escapes to the jetty (called a mole); as he attempts to board the ship full of wounded by deftly picking up a stretcher with a dying man and forcing his way through an impossible crowd; as he detects that the ship will soon be sunk, and clings to the pier underneath; as he floats from the pier to the sea; as he drifts to an abandoned boat, until he is finally fished out of the oily sea by a brave merchant seaman played by Mark Rylance.
The intentional blurring of identities and lack of names works, as does the minimal dialogue, mostly spoken by commanders played by the better known actors, Branagh and Rylance. All any of them want to do is get home, an ideal chalky cliff visible across the English Channel.
The movie made me want to learn more about the battle and evacuation, and in my probing I learned that three other movies had been made about Dunkirk, beginning in 1958. One can see why the British are so proud of their actions those early days of the war: the war apparatus alone could not save so many young men about to be mown down. It took a whole nation, pulling together.