Before we get started, let me just get this out of the way. I’m an admirer of the films of Christopher Nolan, but by no means am I sycophant who worships him as some grand savior of cinema. He’s a very good, ambitious director who sometimes misses. That being said, Nolan’s latest, Dunkirk, is his finest hour. Dunkirk is a thrilling war epic that is absolutely relentless in its intensity, and represents the best work of Nolan’s career to date. If you can make it to a showing of Dunkirk in 70mm IMAX, don’t hesitate to see this large scale epic as it was meant to be seen – on the biggest screen possible and projected from celluloid.
During World War II, the British and French forces battling the Nazis had been pinned down by the German war machine. From May 26th to June 4th, 1940, the British carried out the largest retreat in history, with nearly 350,000 soldiers rescued from the beach where they were stranded, constantly in danger of an impending German attack. Nolan uses these events to tell the story of what occurred at Dunkirk in three stories that cover the events from the land, sea, and air.
On land, there’s Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young soldier who arrives at the shores after his fellow soldiers are killed in the streets of the town. While waiting to board a ship on the shore, Tommy befriends a quiet soldier in Gibson (Aneurin Barnard). Though the two try to do everything they can to board a boat, they’re unable to get off the shore.
On the sea, the British government has requested the help of civilians in rescuing the stranded soldiers on the shore. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) answer the call and take along George (Barry Keoghan), a young man who is friends with the family. They’re to take this tiny little ship in the midst of nautical battle with the intention of making a difference.
In the air, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) are engaged in a mission to provide aerial support for the soldiers awaiting rescue. These members of the RAF battle the Luftwaffe over the English Channel, though there are only a few British planes as the powers that be would prefer to save their resources for the next round of fighting, which is likely to occur over England as the Nazis have their sights set on the once great empire.
Over the course of the three stories, Christopher Nolan plays with story structure and timelines in a way that he’s never done before. If simply explained, it could seem like a form of storytelling gimmickry. Instead, Nolan crafts a tale of heroism and sacrifice when all seems lost through the eyes of various characters, and a whole that really looks at the massive undertaking necessary to pull off this miraculous rescue. It culminates in a movie without an ounce of fat on it, and that is captivating from its opening to its closing shot.
The screenplay by Nolan is sparse. Characters go long stretches without speaking. There’s no backstory to any of these characters. No moments where they look at pictures of the girls they left behind and discuss what they’re going to do when the war is over and they’re returned home. As a matter of fact, the names of a majority of the characters aren’t immediately clear, and yet that’s not a hindrance because Nolan’s structure allows you to clearly delineate who is who without a moment of confusion. Nolan refuses to show the Nazis that are attacking the trapped Allied forces, only allowing the audience to see the planes that the Nazis occupy and are a constant looming threat. It allows Dunkirk to avoid the trappings of a villain and allows Nolan to focus on developing the roster of characters solely through their actions in the most harrowing of situations.
Most of Dunkirk is shot and presented in 70mm IMAX, and the scale of the movie matches the size of the screen. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema captures some of the most elegant images I’ve seen on the screen. There are scenes on the beach that are so vivid and gorgeous, only to be counteracted with some harrowing moments of warfare and mounting tension. In one particular scene of a commander played by Kenneth Branagh on the beach, each speck of sand blowing in the wind is noticeable. Amazingly, there’s a sense of scale and vivid visceral beauty in all aspects of Dunkirk’s moments of warfare. Some of the moments at sea feature some haunting imagery that will linger in my mind for some time. And then there are the thrilling dog fights in the sky. The frame is full of the crisp blue sky, but the scale on display also brings a certain sense of intimacy to the RAF pilots combating the Luftwaffe.
Dunkirk represents Christopher Nolan working on a scale that matches his grandiose ambitions but doesn’t fall into some of his weaker tendencies, such as loads and loads of expository dialogue and lengthy running times. (*cough* Interstellar.) And yet Dunkirk doesn’t seem like a throwback to classic war epic. This is a remarkably modern and risky film in its construction, and Nolan hits all of his targets with ample precision. Dunkirk isn’t a movie that would be made if audiences weren’t trained to understand different techniques and non-linear storytelling. Now that Dunkirk is about to be released to wide acclaim, speculation will begin on Christopher Nolan’s next project, which I’m sure many are hoping will be a James Bond flick. But I don’t want to see that. I want to see Nolan pushing the envelope in unexpected ways as he’s just done with Dunkirk, which at present stands as one of 2017’s best films.
- Overall Score
A towering, daring war epic, Dunkirk is the finest film from writer-director Christopher Nolan, a thrilling movie that works on a grand scale without a single dull moment.