Christopher Nolan finally returns to theaters with his latest epic after the release of Interstellar. Follow below for our Dunkirk review.
Dunkirk is a sprawling war epic, but it opens intimately. A group of British soldiers wander down a street in the town for which the movie is named, as leaflets flutter down all around them. A soldier picks up the flyer, showing a map of the coast of France, a white circle surrounded by red.
In the center of the circle is the word “You.” The red is the combined might of the Nazi military machine.
Immediately after that somewhat harrowing revelation, the soldier (Tommy as he’s named in the credits, though never in the movie, played by Fionn Whitehead) catches a few of the leaflets and jams them into his pocket, preparing to use them for toilet paper – and the scene explodes with gunfire, as hidden German soldiers open up on the men. Seconds later, Tommy, the lone survivor of his group, manages to make it to the beach – where he finds lines of thousands of Allied troops, waiting for ships to appear to take them across the English Channel. As Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) notes, they can almost see home from where they stand.
Director Christopher Nolan revels in scenes like this throughout Dunkirk, where small moments open up into huge, heart-pounding action sequences. The enemy soldiers are never named, and appear on screen only in the distance and only twice throughout the movie. They’re more like a force of nature. Planes strafe the beach, dropping bombs, and the stoic British troops take cover, but then line back up when the danger has passed. There’s nothing to do but wait, and hope.
The historical story of the Battle of Dunkirk, taking place in May 1940, is one of a daring rescue of Allied forces. For the men on the ground, survival is the only mandate. Dunkirk differentiates itself from most war movies, drilling into the kind of moments that seem extremely real, if unbecoming. Tommy and another unnamed soldier, Damien Bonnard, come together as they attempt to weasel onto one ship by carrying up an injured man on a stretcher, never exchanging a word as they execute the plan. The pair hope only to escape the doom of the beach, and yet, continually, they help each other, and save one another and others. They’re equally cowardly and selfish, and selfless and brave. In the face of the death coming for them, be it in the roiling oceans, from unseen U-Boats and their torpedoes, or from encroaching soldiers, none of those human traits are mutually exclusive.
Director Christopher Nolan revels in small moments that open up into huge, heart-pounding action sequences throughout Dunkirk.
At the same time, Dunkirk tells two other stories that run in parallel. The story of the men on the beach, known as the Mole, takes place over the course of a week. Setting off from England are Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and teenage friend George (Barry Keoghan) in another story. Rather than let their yacht be requisitioned by the Royal Navy to rescue men from Dunkirk, they set off themselves. That tale encompasses a day.
In the last story takes place in the air as two Spitfire pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), make for Dunkirk over the course of an hour, dogfighting with enemy planes to provide ships and men with what air support they can. The entire battle is fought with both pilots knowing full well they probably won’t have the fuel to make the return trip.
Nolan cuts all three stories together with minimal dialogue, and it’s a testament to the power of the movie that so little can be said and yet so much is conveyed. Each portion of the script boils the large-scale tale of 400,000 men in need of rescue to a few tight moments and perspectives. Yet constantly Dunkirk captures desperation and fear, with tension building, subsiding, and building again. All through Hans Zimmer’s score is the sound of a ticking clock, a powerful on-the-nose reminder that the danger is unrelenting.
Time, it should be said, might be Dunkirk’s weakest element. The mixing of the three stories together is where Nolan does his customary twisting of the audience’s temporal perspective, his favorite well-worn movie gimmick. We see events in Farrier’s story that haven’t happened yet in George, Peter and Mr. Dawson’s, and we get the aftermath of events on the sea before they transpire on land. The juxtaposition mostly favors the building of tension and the passing from one action scene to another – and Dunkirk purposely never lets up, so the audience is unable to relax, much like the characters. But it also adds unnecessary complication to the story. It’s doesn’t make the story difficult to follow, like Inception or Interstellar, but does tear you out of the tension, forcing you to reconcile what you’re seeing with the chronological flow of events.
Before you can think about it too much, though, Dunkirk arrests with its gorgeous, sweeping 70-millimeter shots (here’s how to see Dunkirk in 70mm) and its tight, textured look at how people respond to extraordinary events, and what those events make of them. Characters frantically escape one bad situation, only to land in a worse one, as fate and the enemy tear safety away and death beats closer, like the incoming tide. There are no good guys or bad guys in Dunkirk, but a mix of both: People caught up in an incredible situation, making decisions, fighting to stay alive.
It’s a testament to the power of the movie that so little can be said and yet so much is conveyed.
Though Nolan sometimes forces more complexity on Dunkirk than it requires, it’s the movie’s simplicity that makes it work – which seems counter-intuitive for a big-budget action war movie. Lingering shots on silent men as they grapple with what they have to do to live, and what they can live with, make Dunkirk feel incredibly human.
It’s amazing that Nolan, known for big interlocking ideas that sometimes work and sometimes don’t, allows so much of the movie to breathe without being weighed down. Instead, Dunkirk captures an uncanny and extraordinary moment, forces the audience to live in it. It’s a movie filled with actors who know enough to play down their performances and a script that knows enough to keep its mouth shut.
Dunkirk pounds away at you like bombs pummeling the beach, and in settling in those powerful moments, it manages to be more real and affecting than films with bigger characters sporting reams of words to say.