Dunkirk | Christopher Nolan | July 21, 2017
With Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan has crafted a tense and thrilling war film that feels like you’re trying to survive amongst the soldiers, rather than watching a film about them. Nolan, the rare director who will get the green light to make whatever movie he wants, crafts what is at heart, an experimental war movie that isn’t so much about plot points or character development, but the intensity of the events. He zones in at the heart and soul of not only the soldiers but the brave civilians who stepped in to help out the brave men of the British army come home.
Dunkirk is a well-known event in Britain, but isn’t quite as known to non-history buffs here in the states. It’s 1940, before the United State stepped into the war. The Germans have 400,000 soldiers from British, French, Belgian and Canadian armies trapped on the beaches of the small French town Dunkirk, all desperate to be evacuated before they’re smothered by Hilter’s powerful army.
Nolan, who also wrote the script, splits the film into a triangle of pieces with stories focused on land, sea, and air. We’re first introduced to a young British soldier named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), who barely survives an intense shootout on the streets before he is able to find Allied troops on the beach seeking evacuation. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) takes his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his friend George (Barry Keoghan) on their own private boat out to help aid the troops, opting to embark on a mission to rescue stranded soldiers themselves, rather than giving their boat over to the Navy. Finally, two pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), battle the German Luftwaffe pilots who are trying to smother the soldiers left open waiting for aid in Dunkirk.
Tommy’s storyline is spent trying to find ways to get off the beach where they’re sitting ducks. He and a fellow soldier named Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) do what they can to survive and Nolan shows all their interactions without so much as a spoken word until another soldier named Alex (Harry Styles) is thrown into the mix. They’re constantly dealt blow after blow, and Nolan relies on true filmmaking prowess, using sight and sound to do all the storytelling necessary.
These three storylines are woven together in a non-linear narrative, which shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Nolan’s work. The director trusts his audience to pick up on clues and piece it all together. In many ways, this is an experimental silent film, allowing actions to speak louder than any spoken word possibly could. For a war film, it’s not very gory and he hones in on impressionistic ways of showing the acts of war. We also never see the enemy, we just see their planes, their torpedos, and their bombs. This choice is sharp and effective, as well as a nice change of pace.
From start to finish Dunkirk is an intense ride that doesn’t let up for a single second. From the eye-popping opening frame to the somber finale, you’re left on the edge of your seat with intense action set pieces that are shot gloriously by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema on IMAX 65 mm and truly look larger than life. The scenes up in the air with the pilots are breathtakingly shot, it’s as if you’re flying amongst the clouds with them. The sound design of Hans Zimmer’s score is begging for Oscar glory, as you feel every single shot and blast in your seat in extraordinary fashion. Dunkirk absolutely shines on every technical level. Zimmer’s score operates as a ticking clock, counting down the minutes before the next big blast or life threatening moment creeps up on the soldiers, as well as the audience.
At 106 minutes, Dunkirk is the shortest film in Nolan’s filmography to date. He has condensed the film to the bare minimum and it proves effective. There’s no fat or lingering plot points, it cuts right to the chase. For some, it will be a problem that we don’t really get to know these characters other than the fact that they’re involved in the war and are trying to survive – although, on a human level, that should, and really is, enough to care. Nolan doesn’t dig too deep in their development or big plot points other than the act of war and the survival.
Non-British speakers may have some issues picking up certain lines of dialogue, and some of bending of the storylines may be jarring and off-putting for those who want something more straightforward, but as the film goes along you slowly piece it all together and it allows the audience to consider all three pieces in new perspectives each time it’s re-revealed as a result.
On a performance level, there really isn’t a true lead, although Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy gets a good majority of the front and center focus. This is a true ensemble piece, with each character given a chance to shine when the time calls for it. Of course Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy and Kenneth Branagh offer their usual great performances. There’s also illuminating work from young actors such as Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Barry Keoghan, and Harry Styles, who holds his own and them some. Styles’ star didn’t take away from the film, but was a natural fit and demonstrated some legitimate acting chops.
Considering the historical accuracy of Dunkirk, it’s not a spoiler to say that some soldiers may return home. When they’re greeted, they are thanked for their heroic acts. They’re confused about this reception, saying that all they did was survive. Nolan lights them in the same way as the normal folk who used their boats to step in. There’s no overly dramatic Hollywood big moment. It wasn’t always perfect, but humanity banded together to save one another, and the script hones in on that and realizes that is heroic in itself.
Nolan has crafted an instant classic of the war genre here, one that begs to be seen on the biggest screen that you can find. It’s well-known that the director sticks to old school ways of filmmaking and film exhibition, and when you see his work blasted on a mammoth screen, the sheer size of it all really takes you out of this world and transports you into another. The fact that this is a huge summer blockbuster released in 2017 is a reason to celebrate alone, but it also helps that it’s an awe-inspiring piece of cinema.