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”.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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 affected 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