4 out of 5 stars.
Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” begins with an unexpected quietness, as a group of British soldiers roam the streets of that all-but-abandoned French city that, as the text at the beginning of the film states, is the site of the Allied soldiers’ retreat after the 1940 invasion of France by Nazi Germany. But it isn’t long before the group encounters German soldiers, and young Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is the only one to make it to the beach, where evacuation measures are underway. It is there that he meets Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) in the midst of burying a fellow soldier, and joins with him to try to get off the beach they are now trapped on.
These opening sequences set up the tone and style of “Dunkirk” very well. The gunfire is piercingly loud; there is little dialogue; and the characters aren’t really characters in the traditional sense. The story is divided into three parts, which the film jumps between in non-linear structure. The part set on the beach that follows Tommy, Gibson, and later Alex (Harry Styles) is called “The Mole” (“mole” refers to the pier-like structure extending from land to sea), and takes place over one week. The second part is called “The Sea,” and takes place over one day. This segment of the film details the journey of the private boats that the Royal Navy commandeered to help in the evacuation, as they were unable to supply more of their own ships. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), along with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and their young helper George (Barry Keoghan), are more than ready to assist, but decide to take their boat out themselves rather than allow the Navy to do it for them. They go on a series of rescues, the first being a stranded soldier (played by Cillian Murphy) suffering from severe PTSD.
The third part of the film takes place over the course of just one hour, and is titled “The Air.” It follows three pilots (including Collins, played by Jack Lowden, and Farrier, played by Tom Hardy) on their way to Dunkirk to provide air assistance, as the beach is being bombarded by Germans from above. All of these characters and storylines converge as the film progresses and the evacuation gets underway.
“Dunkirk” is not your typical war movie; in fact, it’s something rather revolutionary, and is probably the most radical thing that writer/director Nolan has done to date (and that’s saying a lot, looking at his filmography). This isn’t a plot-driven movie, or a character-driven movie; there’s no one person who emerges as the hero, no one conflict the characters must overcome. This film is more of a portrait of the Dunkirk evacuation, with the characters helping to enact a series of scenes to create an overall impression of what Winston Churchill at the time called a “colossal military disaster.” While the absence of complex characters make this a hard movie to love, it never leaves the viewer feeling cold. In fact, the case is just the opposite: we see the selfish actions of those driven by fear, but we also see the heroics of average people, like Dawson and the other civilians who put themselves at risk to save lives, or Farrier, who goes beyond the call of duty with his life on the line, or Peter, who at the end does a small thing to make sure a person is properly remembered. It’s these acts of patriotism and heroism that make the film so inspiring; Churchill may have called Dunkirk a disaster, but he also called it a “miracle of deliverance.”
The cast across the board is excellent, and make their characters stand out despite sharing screen-time with so many others, and despite many of them not even having proper names (in the case of Farrier, we only see Tom Hardy’s eyes behind his flight mask until the end of the film). There’s also James D’Arcy as Colonel Winnant and Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton, who supervise the evacuation of the British troopers. But it’s the cinematography that is the truly awe-inspiring aspect of the film. Nolan shot the movie on 65MM IMAX film, and with many theaters playing it in that 70MM format, there is truly no other way to watch this movie. More intimate close-ups and medium shots of characters are broken up by long-shots of planes flying over the beach, or boats cruising on the open sea, or vast numbers of soldiers crowding the mole, trying to be the first to get out. These scenes completely immerse the viewer, placing the audience right in the middle of the war. These visuals are simultaneously beautiful and eerie, but they also portray war in a more realistic manner than most narrative films do. None of the scenes are exactly gruesome, but there is a sparseness to the action that makes it clear that this movie is not glorifying battle—it is telling it like is. The sound effects that complement those scenes are loud; the gunfire is startling, the explosions rattle through your body. And then there’s Hans Zimmer’s tense score, which lends a sense of urgency to the proceedings; it is definitively a Zimmer score, but I mean that in the best way possible.
“Dunkirk,” unless most war movies, is beautiful in its simplicity. At around an hour and forty-five minutes, it is one of Nolan’s shortest films to date, but every second on screen counts. To say that a person should “watch” it doesn’t quite feel appropriate; “Dunkirk” is a film that needs to be experienced, and it’s jaw-dropping cinematography helps make it one of the year’s most memorable and unique film-going experiences. But it also ends on such a blatantly patriotic note, that you can’t help but leave with that feeling of admiration and respect for humanity that we are often reaching for, but can rarely hold on to these days—and so we look for it in the past.
Runtime: 107 minutes. Rated PG-13.