I’m a big believer that you should know absolutely nothing about movies before you go in. If I know I’m going to see a movie, I don’t watch any trailers, I don’t read any reviews, and if I could, I would literally stick my head in the sand until it’s release. That approach goes double for Christopher Nolan. I know he’s going to turn out something great, and I want to experience it for the first time the way he wants to present it, on a massive screen. So while I’ll try and avoid spoilers best I can, I advise you don’t read this until after you’ve seen Dunkirk. Because this is a movie that deserves as clean a slate as possible for your first viewing experience (Hows that for building a brand?).
Nolan is a director who loves to mess with what people know about movies. Memento’s story structure was absolutely groundbreaking when it came out, The Prestige (my personal favorite of Nolan’s filmography), tells a mind bending story about magic and dueling magicians. The Dark Knight trilogy gave viewers a grounded, new take on Batman. And everybody knows how trippy both Inception and Interstellar were. When I heard Nolan was taking on a World War II movie, I found myself asking, “sure, but what’s the twist?” I was genuinely worried about Nolan taking on a straight up war film. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking though, because Dunkirk is great.
Right off the bad, I want to start with the cinematography, because this is the best shot film of the year so far. Nolan re-teams with Interstellar collaborator Hoyte Van Hoytema, and what they accomplish here is breathtaking. Nolan has long been a champion of shooting on film, and while I think the argument is sentimental more so than anything else, this is one of the few films that really benefits from film over digital cameras. The the rich vibrancy to the colors Van Hoytema is able to achieve is simply outstanding. Not only are the quieter moments and landscape shots expectedly gorgeous, but the action is no slouch either. Van Hoytema somehow manages to make the action sequences claustrophobic and massive in scale. So many of the settings are close-quarter (the hull of a ship, an airplane cockpit, etc.), and while it always felt tight, Van Hoytema always shows everything in frame so the viewer doesn’t get lost.
Words cannot adequately express how stunning the visuals In this film are, you simply has to experience it for yourself. I saw this in IMAX, and I can’t think of another movie that better justifies the higher ticket price.
Even though this is a WWII film, and one of the most straight forward films he’s has ever produced, its not without Nolan’s signature style. This film is a wall-to-wall white knuckle experience, and it requires the audience to be locked in, to really experience war as the soldiers do. Without a master at the helm like Nolan, it would have been easy for the tone to waiver, or for the viewer to lose interest. Nolan is able to perfectly balance the suspenseful sequences with quieter ones. These slower aspects of the film don’t let up on the tension though, as almost every shot lays the groundwork for the next explosive scene. And is it really a Christopher Nolan film if he doesn’t mess with the space-time continuum at least a little bit? This film, follows three distinct story lines: The Sea, The Air, and The Mole (the beachhead), all taking place over a different timeframe and all intercut together.
My favorite of these storylines is The Sea, quite literally captained by Mark Rylance. Their task is quite simple, to get to Dunkirk, pick up troops, and return home, but along the way they pick up marooned soldier (played by Chris Nolan staple Cillian Murphy). From this action, the story become a compelling interpersonal character drama. This film is massive, from the opening shot you can tell the gigantic scope Nolan has created, and yet the scenes at sea are so intimate. Rylance gives such a commanding performance without ever raising his voice, the entire time he was on screen my eyes were glued to him. This vignette is fueled by interpersonal character drama, and Nolan does well to have a more intimate story, while never losing sight of the bigger picture.
Next up is The Air, with Tom Hardy playing the central pilot protagonist, which is by far the most tense of the three settings. Early on Nolan sets up external and internal conflicts, in trying to protect ships from Nazi’s and a battle against dwindling fuel. Hardy again plays the trope of quiet, mumbling hero, but dammit if he isn’t one of the best in the business at it. In what couldn’t have been more than ten words the entire time he’s on screen, he expertly displays what he’s experience, and seeing as how his face is covered through most of the film, you can see what make Hardy a master. As stated above, this is by far the most intense of any of the settings. Nolan does an absolutely incredible job creating a constant tension, and ratcheting it up with every shot. I was constantly holding my breath waiting for some form of resolution. But Nolan keeps the viewer right in middle of the pulse-pounding action, while staving off the fatigue that can sometimes result.
Lastly, there’s The Mole. We spend the most time with these characters, both in matters of screen time and the films own chronology. In it, we follow a group of young infantrymen, simply trying to get off the beach. Their goal is simple, but the scenarios they’re thrown into one after another never let you forget why they’re so committed to escape. Watching them fail again and again, having home in their grasp, only for it to be snatched away at the last second, it’s a heartbreaking thing. This makes every subsequent sequence on the Mole more dreadful than the last. We think they’ve finally done it, they’re finally going to make it home, but we know there must be something coming, something that will unfairly pluck our soldiers from safety.
Through this three tiered story structure, Nolan is able to show the horrors of war in a way that is both massive and unstoppable, while remaining intensely personal. From the literal and metaphorical heights of the dog fights in the sky, to the simple act of a man trying to get his boat across the English Channel. Survival, protection, answering the call to action, all three vignettes show different aspect of this event, without ever making them feel disconnected. This movie is about what happened at Dunkirk, and Nolan does a remarkable job at putting it to screen.
That approach does have some drawbacks, though. Focusing so much on the conflict at Dunkirk itself, comes at the sacrifice of the films characters. This is a massive cast, but I could only tell you one character name coming out of the film. It’s not that I didn’t care about anyone, but I wasn’t connected with them. Obviously I wanted them all to survive, but that was just because, as a general rule, I don’t want people to be killed. The tension in this film was incredible, but I can only imagine how much more I would have felt had I know these characters. If I knew what their deaths meant, I would have felt a dramatic tension, as well as a situational one.
This film clocks in at an hour and forty-seven minutes. And while Nolan makes great use of it, I would have absolutely been game for a longer movie, if it meant I got to know the characters more. With most war movies coming in at two and a half plus hours, I would have expected it. Honestly, It feels like Nolan made a massive, three hour war epic, and then someone came in and cut out all of the character moments. Not that this movie feels like theres a gaping hole in it, but I would have loved to actually care about any of these people.
All said, I thought Dunkirk was fantastic. This is a film that so clearly shows what makes Christopher Nolan great. Honestly, if he keeps churning out quality products like this, he’s on track to be one of the all time greats. This is a film that hooked me from its opening shot, and didn’t let me exhale until the credits started rolling. I could keep writing for hours about all of the little moments I loved about Dunkirk, but as I said up top, I want everyone to go in to this movie knowing as little as possible.
Rating: 4.35 – Great