A film review by Craig J. Koban July 30, 2017


2017, PG-13, 106 mins.


Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton of the Royal Navy  /  Fionn Whitehead as Tommy  /  Mark Rylance as Captain of the Moonstone  /  Tom Hardy as Farrier  /  Cillian Murphy as BEF Officer  /  Harry Styles as Alex

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan



Hardly anyone needs to be reminded at this point that Christopher Nolan is one of the most dominant and assured film directors working in contemporary cinema.  

Over the course of the last decade-plus the British auteur has put his unique esoteric stamp on a rich variety of genres, showing him to be completely unafraid of any silver screen challenge.  Whether it be in mind bending cerebral thrillers like MEMENTO, period films like THE PRESTIGE, comic book action films like THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY or thought provoking science fiction efforts like INTERSTELLAR and INCEPTION, there are virtually no missteps on Nolan's film resume as a dexterous and confident filmmaking craftsman. 

DUNKIRK seems like the next logical progression of Nolan's career, which marks his first foray into the fact based war drama.  And as far as nail biting and unnervingly intense stories go, the evacuation of the allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk in Northern France in May of 1940 is a positively gripping one to tell.  Utilizing some of the most breathtaking 70mm IMAX photography ever attempted and a level of immersive practical production artifice that Nolan has become well known for, DUNKIRK is an unqualified masterpiece of technical artistry.  That, and the film is unreservedly tense and frightening on more deeply intimate levels than a handful of other recent war films.  Nolan's narrative approach to the material, though, is both liberatingly fresh and innovative, but is paradoxically a source of one of the film's more nagging faults (more on that in a bit).  Viscerally, DUNKIRK is a rousing triumph, but dramatically it's a somewhat disappointingly inert. 



But the evacuation of Dunkirk over the course of several days is indeed a fascinating WWII yarn.  At the time Germany was pressing the Allied forces hard into France, so hard that they ostensibly trapped thousands of soldiers on the shallow shored beaches of Dunkirk.  These British, Canadian, French, and Belgian fighting men were completely cut off and surrounded by German troops, and since the shorelines would not allow for a massive naval evacuation, these pinned down soldiers were essentially sitting ducks being peppered by heavy German artillery.  A massive unilateral effort by Allied (and some civilian) vessels were mounted to evacuate the soldiers nearly one by one.  After eight grueling and traumatizing days, over 300,000 troops were saved and taken in by 800 ships.   

Nolan's rather audacious, calculated, and risky plan of attack for helming this material really absconds away from obligatory war drama efforts.  More often than not, other similarly themed films spend an inordinate amount of time on expositional particulars about the respective lives of the soldiers both behind the scenes and during the battleground conflict.  Nolan has none of that here, seeing as his lean and tight 106 minute movie (one of his shortest in recent memory) spends its entire running time on the evacuation of Dunkirk itself and is told from three unique prerogatives - the land, sea, and air - while keeping dialogue to an absolute bare minimum.  He also, as demonstrated in past films, plays loose and free with time structure, and his non-linear approach to the script and the unveiling of the events of Dunkirk keeps viewers fully focused.  Nolan's avant garde execution here is to be applauded for its boldness and unwillingness to subscribe to genre troupes, but sometimes to the negative effect of curtailing any emotional resonance and connection we have to the story and its soldiers. 

For the most part, Nolan's narrative cross cutting works as he tries to weave the various pieces of his story to form a cohesive - but sometimes confusing - whole.  On the ground he focuses in on a baby faced infantryman (Fionn Whitehead) who desperately stumbles through one falling bomb after another to stay alive.  On the sea we have the tale of a civilian sailboat called The Moonstone, whose captain (Mark Rylance) decides to take his vessel into the lion's den to do what he can to save what few soldiers he can from the Dunkirk beaches, and manages to save one shell shocked soldier along the way (Cillian Murphy).  Lastly and in the air, the screenplay zeroes in on a Spitfire pilot (Tom Hardy) that's flying on his last reserves of gas while trying to defend the trapped troops below from the frequent German attacks.   

In a relative age of digital fakery, DUNKIRK reminds viewers of the tactile grit and nuance of old school celluloid filmmaking, something that Nolan has been a very public and steadfast advocate of.  Utilizing cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema's painterly eye, richly textured 70mm IMAX film stock, and thousands of extras and employing real age-specific and accurate planes, Nolan achieves a level of you-are-there verisimilitude that's frankly a lost art in modern war films...and films in general.  DUNKIRK is also an unendingly nerve wracking film to endure, seeing as Nolan drums of the ever escalating tension from one scene to the next, all of which is complimented by Hans Zimmer's propulsive and relentless music score that helps cement the second-by-second dread of those trapped and marooned soldiers.  DUNKIRK is also loud and scary on the audio front, which is evident by the Oscar caliber sound effects and mixing engineering on display here: bullets being fired and planes flying overhead have rarely, of ever, come of as terrifying as they do here.   And, yes, I'm quite sure that some digital visual effects were undoubtedly used here, but they're so invisibly married to the live action elements that they never draw attention to themselves.   

Despite being richly suspenseful, DUNKIRK is an ultra rare war film in the sense that it's not bathed in blood spewing violence and gore.  It's not about cementing viewers in the savage barbarism of combat, but rather the undulating sensation of fear that these trapped soldiers felt over the course of several agonizingly long days.  Nolan certainly captures the senselessness of war and its startling unpredictability, but he never seems obsessed with relaying its savageness to sensationalistic levels.  The film thrusts audience members into the utter horrifying chaos of war by thanklessly and somewhat miraculously making the proceedings fairly bloodless.  Normally, I loathe it when films sanitize their subject matter for the purposes of a mass audience placating PG-13 rating, but DUNKIRK is more of a tone and mood piece that doesn't really require in-your-face on screen carnage to shift effectively through all gears. 

For as much unbridled admiration that I had with Nolan's lean and spare handling of the material, there were some aspects of DUNKIRK that nevertheless irked me to the point of distraction.  The film is so technique focused, often and largely to the point of failing as a work of...drama.  Because of the film's innovative structure and scope, Nolan has next to no time for developing any of the soldiers presented as fully realized and fleshed out characters.  There is virtually zero character development throughout DUNKIRK, seeing as the soldiers presented all feel completely interchangeable as the plot progresses.  Drama requires characters that are well delineated and command our emotional buy-in.  DUNKIRK is populated less by richly written personas than it is by targets being served up for the German slaughter.  Because virtually no one that occupies the frame has a distinct personality or backstory I found it awfully hard to give a damn.   

Nolan's script structure - which, as mentioned, jumps back and forward in time here and there - also segues so abruptly that you're left wondering whether what we watched was a flashback or not.  This, along with its other glaring issues, had a stymieing effect on my overall adulation for the film.  Yet, Nolan still remains one of our finest working directors and he has painstakingly crafted DUNKIRK as a work of stupendous craft that deserves big screen consumption.  As an epic spectacle of terror filled veracity, the director has never come off as more confident; he's in full authoritative command here.  But as another masterful genre effort from a filmmaker that rarely has done wrong in the past, DUNKIRK falls disappointingly short.  Having said that, you have to admire Nolan's persistence of vision here and readiness to take chances with a well worn genre, even while it could have benefited from some good old fashioned human drama injected here and there for good measure.  

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