REVIEW: “Dunkirk”

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For film lovers a new Christopher Nolan movie should be considered an event. Even for those not completely smitten with his body of work, there is no denying Nolan is an auteur with a bold, modern cinematic voice. He could accurately be called both a traditionalist and an innovator and this fascinating mixture finds its way into each of his productions.

A filmmaker guided by intuition and passion, Nolan has frequently revisited familiar themes all while extending himself across several genres – psychological crime thriller, neo-noir, superhero, brainy science fiction. There is a steady, reliable value to every movie he makes and while this statement can be debated, I’ve yet to see a ‘bad’ Nolan picture. That’s the track record he brings into a new genre with the historical war film “Dunkirk”.

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A military disaster trumped by an incredible display of human will and triumph, the story of Dunkirk is a World War 2 story unlike any other. Nolan himself has called it “the greatest story in human history”. In May of 1940 Germany invaded France. British troops were sent to aid the French but were pushed back to the English Channel by the heavily armored German forces. Nearly 400,000 Allied soldiers found themselves surrounded on the beaches of Dunkirk, France. England enacted Operation Dynamo as a means to rescue the boxed in troops. With time running out a call went out to civilian vessels (fishing boats, ferries, yachts, etc) to assist the Navy in the improbable evacuation amid waves of German air and sea attacks.

Nolan’s film immediately drops us into the fire. Aside from some early text, there is no setup or prologue of any sort. We are instantly among gunfire, nosediving fighter planes, and the screams of those men caught between their enemy and the equally threatening waters. And the film keeps us there through its remarkably lean 107 minutes. This is no exhaustive examination and you’ll get no war room banter or ‘meanwhile back at home’ segments. Nolan’s focus is on subjective storytelling therefore he has no interest in pulling us out of the intensity.

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To tell his story Nolan breaks the film into three story threads – one event, three intersecting timelines. The first takes place on land and a spans one week (it’s titled “The Mole” which references a long breakwater pier). Here we meet and follow a young soldier from the British Expeditionary Force (a fine debut performance from Fionn Whitehead). We get Kenneth Branagh as a naval commander and the highest ranking officer on the beach, James D’Arcy’s antsy but steadfast army colonel, and a handful of other characters crumbling under the weight of desperation.

The second story thread is titled “The Sea” and takes place within a single day. It places its main focus on an English civilian (superbly played by Mark Rylance) who answers the call to head to Dunkirk. He takes along his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a young local eager to help (Barry Keoghan). Without knowing the dangers ahead, the three sail straight into the mouth of war.

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The third story is called “The Air” and features some of the most stunning aerial photography ever put to film. It’s breathtaking cinema. Tom Hardy leads a group of three Royal Air Force Spitfire pilots tasked with protecting the soldiers below from German fighters and bombers. Their story spans only one hour yet it offers up some of the film’s most visceral edge-of-your-seat action.

The movie’s unconventional narrative structure weaves us back and forth between these three stories, connecting them at the most unexpected junctures. Cillian Murphy, Harry Styles, Jack Lowden, among others have roles in the chaos as well. Nolan (who also wrote the script) places the entire emphasis on his characters’ experience. No backstories or in-depth relationship building. What he gives us is a harrowing survival story set within a framework of sustained suspense and intensity that rarely allows you time to catch your breath.

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“Dunkirk” remains grounded in reality throughout. You’ll find no war movie cliches or manufactured sentimentality. Nor does it seek to make judgements concerning the actions of its characters. Nolan composes a careful tension between cowardice and sense of duty but never lays blame or casts guilt. Instead he creates pressure cooker circumstances that pull out a range of genuine human responses. Then he allows his audience the room to make their own conclusions.

A bit more about the presentation. “Dunkirk” is a masterclass on the melding of old school visual techniques, modern film technology and an unmatched creative eye. A notorious proponent of film over digital, Nolan has honed his skills through several movies in preparation for this one.  It was shot on location with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, it contains a massive cast of extras and it was made with predominately all practical effects over CGI. And with 75% of the film shot in IMAX and the rest in 65mm large format stock, “Dunkirk” is a jaw-dropping spectacle that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Nolan once said “The theatrical window is to the movie business what live concerts are to the music business.” “Dunkirk” shows that to be true.

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A spectacular sound design and one of the best Hans Zimmer scores to date makes “Dunkirk” a penetrating composition of image, sound, and music. It’s light but calculated use of dialogue demands that the focus remains on the terrifying events. But don’t miss the subtle emotional punches along the way. And in the end there is far more intimacy and feeling than you might expect.

The story of Dunkirk was a pivotal early moment in World War 2 and the Dunkirk spirit is something that has lived on through those most closely effected by it. Christopher Nolan brings it to the screen through an incredibly immersive and propulsive experience. This is an extraordinary cinematic journey made by a craftsman at the top of his game. I don’t use the word lightly, but “Dunkirk” is a modern masterpiece that evokes a range of feelings that personify why going to the movies is so special. Simply put, don’t miss your chance.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5-starss

5STAR K&M

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84 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Dunkirk”

    • Sadly the only screen I was able to see it on was Cinemark’s XD screen. It looked incredible and the sounds was mind-blowing at the same time it wasn’t the fully IMAX experience. Why? Because my closest IMAX is renovating and won’t reopen until later this year. Can you believe that???

  1. Well, as one who witnessed this at the famed Cinerama Dome in Hollywood last night, projected on 70mm film, it was gorgeous. Sounded great, too. When I see it again, I’ll probably try a digital screening to try and compare it to. Fine review, Keith. 🙂

  2. I will not miss my chance! Not twice, anyway! Freaking power failure at the theater I was in at 9 on opening night caused us to miss it. Haven’t had a chance to get to it yet but man, the reviews coming in (this stellar one included, see what I did There? Maybe?) have not been making the wait easy!

    • Stellar…yep! I got that! Man this is brilliant cinema through and through. Even my wife (who likes Nolan films but doesn’t love them) looked at me in the theater and said “That was incredible!” I’m seeing it again Tuesday.
      And I think I would have cried if our theater had that happen. Argggh!

  3. I’m seeing this later today in 70mm, so it’s great to see a perfect rating. I’m very much looking forward to seeing this, excellent review Keith.

      • Just came back from seeing this and would agree with you about Dunkirk; it is quite an extraordinary film, and I was not only impressed by Nolan’s acute direction but the editing as well. Also, the 70mm presentation was absolutely gorgeous…

      • That’s great to hear. And man I’m so jealous. I would give anything to see a 70mm version. I’ve checked and the closest IMAX for me is 2.5 hours away. Sigh!

    • Wow, thank you! Glad to hear your excited. I can’t sing this film’s praises enough. There is so much craft behind this movie. Everything clicks. When will you be able to see it?

  4. I saw it on Friday and I really enjoyed it. It is a technical masterpiece. On the visual and sonic level, it stands alone so far this year. The scope of the film is massive and the sacrifice and heroism that Nolan captures that day is captivating. That said, I was never attached to any of the characters and a lot of the emotional punches misfired for me. Still an excellent movie and in my top three for sure so far.

    • I’ve heard from other who felt a bit emotionally detached as well. Personally the “experience” aspect was so strong that I genuinely felt I was right there with each of them. In other words I connected to them all, not on a deeply personal level but in terms of an intense visceral shared experience. I think that’s the genius of Nolan’s method.

    • Thanks so much. I’ve always been hesitant to hand out 5 star scores (maybe too hesitant), but this one is completed justified. It is filmmaking at its best. Will you be getting to see it soon?

      • And yet this one got past the hesitation. I think it’s a useful hesitation if it can deem one or two worthy of gold every now and then. Keeps the standards up where they should be.

        Soonest possible.

  5. Glad you enjoyed it! I must say I disagree and was overall unimpressed–I didn’t buy into the emotion/tension/characters at all and the technical achievements were not enough to compensate for that. I know I’m in the minority though.

    Great review, though.

    • Stay true to your experience. Nothing wrong with that. I was completely consumed by the steady tension. I was sucked in from the first moment. And I’m really glad Nolan didn’t try to go deeper into backgrounds and character development. It kept me in the immediate experience from start to finish.

  6. Great review Keith! I watched it today and found it heart pounding. Van Hoytema’s cinematography, Zimmer’s soundtrack and Nolan’s three-perspective style was unique. It was non-stop and Nolan achieved what he was trying to create; A visual experience that simulates war. Inception’s still my fav movie of his, but this was fantastic.

    • 100% agree with you. I too believe Inception is his best film. But this isn’t far behind. Such an incredible experience. I have tickets purchased to see it again in the AM.

  7. Such an easy 10/10 for me. I actually only today realized the week, day, hour thing in the different narrative parts, the way they were mixed together was so brilliant. And the actors all did a wonderful job

    • YES! Great to hear that. It’s a movie that well deserves the praise it’s getting. The narrative structure is incredibly gutsy. It could’ve easily flopped. But Nolan nails it. Can’t wait to watch it again tomorrow. It feels like a movie that would be even better the second time through.

  8. Couldn’t agree with you more! Dunkirk just might be my favorite war film, at least of the past couple of decades. I can’t express how refreshing it was to see not a single genre cliche present in such a uniquely-structured film. I loved it.

    • YES! A cliche-free war picture is indeed refreshing. And I love how it isn’t a standard war story of heroism. It’s such a unique story and Nolan seems dedicated to it which makes it all the better.

  9. Wish I was able to see it in IMAX. It’s quite the experience on any screen, but I bet it’s pretty special super-sized. Ironic that the best chance most of us will have to see Nolan’s intended imagery is on Blu-ray!

    That aside, the structure and editing of it fascinates me. The one week/hour/day thing works well, I thought, and it’s neat being able to spot things in the background that are later major events when other timelines catch up, but the way they’ve intercut individual scenes across time periods as if they’re happening simultaneously is… strange. I’m keen to hear Nolan’s thought process behind that.

    • I’m with you. It is fascinating. I’m so anxious to see it again tomorrow and a big reason is to see how much of his interweaving story structure I may have missed the first time. I also agree that it’s a remarkable experience regardless. But boy to see it in 70mm!

  10. I’ve had a few comments from people about how they didn’t like Hans Zimmer’s score, and found it either incongrous or over-the-top, and I couldn’t disagree more. I think the score added significantly to Dunkirk’s tension (other than its already situational thrills) and is one of the more restrained from the man in recent times. A brilliant accompaniment to one of the year’s best films.

    • 100% agree with you. It’s such an incredible mixture of sounds and chords. It was tense without drawing attention to itself. It almost always felt like part of the scene. For me, it will be a joke if it and the sound design aren’t nominated for Oscars

  11. Pingback: Dunkirk Review: What You Need to Know | On the Screen Reviews

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  14. Great review Keith, as a fan of WWII movies and Christopher Nolan (and a fellow Brit), Dunkirk was already an easy sell for me, but I was especially pleased at the more unconventional approach he took in terms of pacing/structure to deliver something that felt fresh for the genre.

    Definitely one of my top films for this year…with Thor (this evening), Justice League and Star Wars still to come!

    • Thanks Chris. I’ve seen lots of movies since Dunkirk and there are definitely some big ones on the way, but man Dunkirk will be hard to beat. I too love the genre and think Dunkirk is one of the best in large part because of what you said. I can’t wait for it to hit Blu-ray.

  15. Although I liked Dunkirk , I guess Nolan just does not connect with me emotionally at all . I find his work kinda of cold and in all his movies , I’m a bit detached. I did enjoy it for its historical presentation . It is worth seeing for sure .

    • The emotional punch for me was pretty strong. I didn’t find it narratively. Instead in was in the shared experience. I felt I was there with every character. Nolan makes it all so immersive. Sorry during those last moments I really felt it.

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