(2017—Director: Christopher Nolan)
★★★★ (out of 5 stars)
“He’s shell-shocked, George. He’s not himself. He may never be himself again.” — Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) on Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy)
Potential spoilers below
Since the start of this millennium, few filmmakers have earned the widespread critical praise and commercial success as British-American writer, producer, and director Christopher Nolan. He elevated Batman into an Everestian cinematic opera of good and evil between 2005 and 2012. With Dunkirk, Nolan makes his first foray into real-life events. His narrative experimentation here may have forgotten to guarantee an emotional crux, but the realistic war drama remains a spectacle of the highest order.
Set in mid-1940 towards the start of World War II, Dunkirk centers on the real-life “colossal military disaster” in which Allied forces, numbering around half a million, find themselves stranded and in dire need of evacuation at the titular port city on the French side of the English Channel. Since the evacuation involved land, sea, and air, the film is divided into three storylines. These three storylines intersect throughout the runtime.
The first storyline (“The Mole”) follows Tommy (Fionn Whitehead, in his film debut), a young British private who reaches the Allied-controlled beach at Dunkirk after surviving fierce shootouts in the streets further inland at the start of the film. Weary of occasional assaults from the Nazi Luftwaffe pilots patrolling the skies above, Tommy and the rest of the soldiers await passage on the departing ships, supervised by the stoic Cdr. Bolton (famed actor-director Kenneth Branagh) and Col. Winnant (James D’Arcy, ABC’s Agent Carter). Tommy is joined along the way by fellow British Army privates Gibson (Aneurin Barnard, BBC1’s The White Queen) and Alex (Harry Styles of vocal group One Direction, in his acting debut).
The second storyline (“The Sea”) centers on Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies), who decides to sail to Dunkirk with his son and his son’s friend on their own to rescue Allied soldiers instead of lending their boat to the British Royal Navy. En route, they come across a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy, Inception, Free Fire) who soon opposes civilian Mr. Dawson’s mission.
The third storyline (“The Air”) focuses on two Royal Air Force pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy, The Revenant, BBC1/FX’s Taboo) and Collins (Jack Lowden, Tommy’s Honour, the upcoming England Is Mine). The Nazis have halted their ground troops at the Allied perimeter, leaving their Luftwaffe fighter pilots to devastate the stranded Allies on the beach. As such, Farrier and Collins must use the hour’s worth of fuel on each of their Spitfire planes to face the Germans head-on in the air and ensure a less perilous evacuation.
Dunkirk is yet another towering technical accomplishment from writer, producer, and director Christopher Nolan. Instead of shooting the film on a soundstage, Nolan chose to shoot largely on-location at Dunkirk, France. He also used era-accurate planes as well as some of the actual boats used in the 1940 Allied evacuation. On top of all that, Nolan directed a legion of extras amidst refreshing practical effects. Editor Lee Smith (who has worked with Nolan since 2005’s Batman Begins) and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (who also shot Nolan’s most recent film Interstellar) deliver some of 2017’s most captivating and gritty film sequences. Yet it is Hans Zimmer’s omnipresent and intense score that sits in the driver’s seat alongside Nolan’s surefire directorial hand.
There is no doubt that Dunkirk is a colossus below-the-line. That said, Nolan’s experimental approach of recounting the historical event deserves more praise for its ambition (much like Interstellar) as opposed to its actual execution.
Nolan’s film is an ensemble war picture, through and through. With its sheer scale, I found it quite difficult to latch onto any one of its characters, especially when Nolan’s script and direction does not produce a single “traditional, Oscar-caliber” performance. Fionn Whitehead as Tommy is only the “eyes and ears of the audience” for only “The Mole” storyline (one-third of the film). Mark Rylance and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney, in his film debut) both feel like equal presences in “The Sea”. In “The Air”, Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden spend most of their screentime wearing helmets and breathing masks while monitoring the skies. Even with Interstellar’s confusing story logic, one cannot deny that Matthew McConaughey anchors the entire film with great emotion (especially with that scene in which he watches all his kids’ video messages). Dunkirk is a big, cold spectacle intermingling unfamiliar with familiar faces by comparison.
As such, I hesitate to proclaim Dunkirk as Christopher Nolan’s zenith. That does not mean that I cannot appreciate it for leaving me exhausted like his previous film Interstellar. In any case, I intend to rewatch Dunkirk in the coming weeks to see if my initial thoughts above have shifted. One conclusion, however, shall remain: Christopher Nolan took the military event of 1940—arguably the pivotal moment of World War II—and turned it into one of, if not the, movie event of 2017.
See it soon and on the biggest screen possible. You will not regret it.
(Parental Note: Dunkirk has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA “for intense war experience and some language.” It has also been rated 12A by the BBFC for “sustained threat, intense sequences, moderate violence, and strong language” and A-III (Adults) by the Catholic News Service for “intense stylized combat violence, brief gore, a couple of uses of profanity, and at least one instance each of rough, crude, and crass language.” Gunfire results in mostly bloodless casualties. A character tries to defecate at a semi-secluded part of the beach, but stops when he notices a fellow soldier nearby. Soldiers die from bombs and drowning. A character falls and hits his head during a scuffle on a boat; he soon becomes blind and later dies from his injury. Some soldiers caked in oil that has spilled into the English Channel find themselves surrounded by an inferno when a plane crashes nearby.)