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
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.
evacuation of Dunkirk over the course of several days is indeed a fascinating WWII
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.
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.
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.
MY CTV Review