From the opening scene of Dunkirk one thing is clear, this is going to be unlike any war movie you’ve ever seen. The film opens on a group of British soldiers walking through the french city of Dunkirk. Its a haunting image of Nazi propaganda floating through the air, it is a serene and calm scene. Suddenly Christopher Nolan jerks us out of it with thunderous gunfire and the chaos begins. Dunkirk is unlike any other war story put to film. Every piece of Dunkirk is exquisitely crafted and remarkably realistic. Nolan has always challenged cinematic norms, and with his tenth film, he takes a massive risk to not flesh out the characters as much as some will want. Yet, Nolan has a firm grip on the story he wants to tell, and he does it beautifully. Dunkirk is Nolan’s masterpiece, and the best film of 2017 so far.
The film tells the story of Operation Dynamo. The operation saw the desperate attempt to evacuate the nearly 400,000 allied soldiers trapped on the beach in Dunkirk, France in 1940. With the Germans pushing the allied soldiers closer and closer to death, the evacuation becomes more desperate. Nolan tells three stories in the film. The land, the sea, and the air. Instead of choosing to focus on one characters perspective, Nolan focuses on the devastation of everything thats going on instead. It is a massive undertaking to tell a story without a central character. But, Nolan does more than just make it work, he crushes it.
There are few characters to follow in the film. Nolan doesn’t need to spoon feed the audience character motivations of the various people we meet. By simply using a tracking shot of the hoard of men on the beach near the films opening, he makes the stakes very clear. Enemy tanks have stopped moving. Why risk tanks when you can pick men off from the air on the beach? Kenneth Branagh, who plays a Navy commander Bolton, makes this point and stresses they need to find a way to quickly get men off the beach. That is where Mark Rylance’s character comes into play. His son and him are among the fleet of civilian boats to make the journey to Dunkirk to help aid the evacuation. Meanwhile, in the air, Tom Hardy’s character is involved in the some of the best aerial dog fights ever seen on film.
None of the characters are really given any backstory. Some may find it a fatal flaw of the film. However, I believe it was Nolan’s intent to cast a wider net with this story. That being said, the acting is superb from its very talented cast. Rylance, Hardy and Branagh are all terrific. However, it is the younger actors whom I believe shine the most.
The closest thing Dunkirk has to a main character is Fionn Whitehead. Whitehead plays Tommy, a young British private who in some ways represents all the inexperienced soldiers on the beach. He hooks up with two others Gibson and Alex (Harry Styles). Styles actually brings a surprising amount of gravitas to his character. You forget you are watching a pop-star’s first acting gig. Through their demeanor and dialogue, we get each characters complete arc. Hardy more than anyone else has very little dialogue but is somehow able to convey a complex and fleshed out character who fits perfectly into the larger narrative.
Also great in the movie is Cillian Murphy who plays a shell shocked solider whom Rylance’s character and his son pick up from a sunken boat. Murphy’s character desperately wants to go back home, but Rylance’s character, Mr. Dawson, is full steam ahead on heading to Dunkirk to rescue who’s left.
On a technical level, Dunkirk shines even brighter than it’s storytelling. However, the spectacle aspect of the film never overshadows its larger goals. The sound design is the first thing that pops out when watching this movie. Nolan makes sure you feel the German planes flying over the beach with incredible sound and stunning visuals to boot. This aspect really shines when the Luftwaffe bombers drop their bombs. The screeching coming from the bombs really makes you feel immersed in the films story. In fact, immersed is the perfect word to summarize the technical achievements of Dunkirk. Nolan and his sound team clearly put every little detail into the gunfire, flyovers and bombings in the movie.
Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography is gorgeous. Keeping in his long standing tradition, Nolan and van Hoytema choose to shoot the film in 65mm film stock. Normally you can’t even tell the difference between film and digital. However, ever so subtlety you can see it in Dunkirk. It gives it a gritty and classic feel. It is one of the more visceral films you’ll ever see.
Not to be lost is Hans Zimmer incredible score. It may be the best of his career or at least his most fitting to the environment it serves. Zimmer uses the over tones of a clock ticking as a metaphor for the events happening on screen. Its boisterous, heroic and riddled with tension to go along with the movies taut style of filmmaking.
Dunkirk is Nolan’s shortest film of recent memory. Coming in at 106 minutes, the movie feels just right. That is mostly because of the movies unrelenting pace. It isn’t full of blood and guts, Nolan isn’t that kind of director. There are moments of insane peril and a tightly wound sense of tension. Few and far between do these pulse pounding moments end predictably. Yet, there are a few that do. But this is a true story, and one we can expect that has a few happy endings.
Nolan wraps the film up perfectly. It’s an ending that reminds us that this wasn’t a bright and shining moment in British military history. In fact, in a speech given to the British House of Commons, then Prime Minister Winston Churchill said an evacuation shouldn’t be considered a military victory. Rather, the real victory belongs to the citizens of a country that stepped up in a time of colossal need. Cillian Murphy’s character even reminds Mr. Dawson (Rylance) that he should be at home. The movie embodies the spirit and bravery of its historical significance.
Dunkirk will long be remembered as one the best war movies of the decade, and maybe of all time. Through it’s sheer attention to every facet of filmmaking, the movie shines above everything else to have come out in 2017. It has the pieces to endure the test of time. Of course, on a bit more superficial level, we truly have our first bona fide Oscar contender for Best Picture. That is a fact I’m sure Nolan and his team don’t care much about. They’ve just crafted the best war film (even though Nolan won’t call it one) of the 21st century and for Nolan, his best film to date.