Dunkirk is a prestige war picture and the tenth film by acclaimed director, Christopher Nolan. The film chronicles the events of the evacuation of British and French forces from the beaches at Dunkirk after they were driven back by German forces in World War II. Over the course of eight days, nearly 340,000 men were rescued by both the British Navy and the heroic efforts of British townspeople on their own civilian craft. This is a film filled wall-to-wall with terror and despair, as well as duty and deliverance. With no hyperbole, Nolan has made a magnificent feature that is, in my estimation, one of the very best films of the decade and one of the best war films ever put to screen.
The first critical thing people need to understand about Dunkirk is what it is about and how it approaches things. Nolan has almost no sentimentality on display in this film. This isn’t a movie like Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge where the directors focus your attention on characters and their human experience. Rather, it is about the pure relentlessness and horror of war. That tonal nuance is what Nolan gets so right in this cinematic experience of a film. He has focal characters, as is almost required for an effective narrative. You may even get attached to some of them. At the end of the day though, they are really secondary to the event itself. That is for the better because it makes the film breathe and feel appropriately weighty for its incredible tale of the power of a group of people’s work rather than the heroism of any single person. By taking focus away from individual people, we get to experience an entire historical event, which makes Dunkirk such a special movie.
In addition to its basic storytelling, this film has another layer that raises it really to the next level of artistic brilliance. As is a feature of many Nolan efforts, Dunkirk has a fractured timeline. The timeline isn’t fractured in the same way as Following, Memento, or The Prestige, however. Instead, it has three independent storylines that move forward on three different timelines until they eventually all converge on the final climax of the evacuation. The way the events are woven together (and can be seen from the different timelines) is astounding and captivating in ways that almost seem impossible. This is not something that was needed in order to just make a good film. It would have been much more clear and simple for the viewer to follow a group of characters linearly through this event. Nolan didn’t just want this to be a good film. He wanted it to be magnificent, and his decision in this writing respect absolutely captures that.
Further, the filmmaking as a whole here is spectacular. I honestly can’t think of any weak element. The sound will pierce your eardrums and make you feel like you’re under active gunfire. The visuals (especially in 70mm IMAX, which I highly recommend) are astounding. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography is truly spectacular. Much like the sound, the immense visuals engulf you in this story and put you on that beach. They make you feel all the terror and fright of war, but also the joy and elation when certain limited good moments happen. Without having the reader see the film, it is hard to put exactly into words how effecting Dunkirk is. I sat through most of it with mouth agape, and I was paralyzed upon its conclusion because it was filled, wire-to-wire, with total intensity. From the opening moments, I was taken in by the amazing imagery. . . Then the gunshots. . . Then the dourness of the the scenes on the beach. Every beat is brilliantly punctuated to invest the audience in ways almost no other cinematic experience brings.
If this film didn’t look and feel real, it probably would come off as detached and ineffective. Fortunately, the immense resources a filmmaker like Christopher Nolan can command meant that he could, and did, assemble a practical, tangible world to shoot on. The boats/ships in this movie are amazing to see, especially captured on the brilliance of the sea. Then, of course, you have the incredible planes, which were equally awe-inspiring in their glory as expertly-crafted World War II-era recreations. Even the costuming did not go unnoticed by me. Everything felt so genuine and authentic and made me feel like I was actually back in the 1940s.
Another great choice came through in the minimalism of this film. There is very, very little dialogue, especially in the Mole storyline. This allows the audience to import their experience on these blank slate characters and puts them at Dunkirk. It also leaves room to highlight the amazing sound design and the incredible Hans Zimmer score. I’m not as obsessed with Zimmer as many Nolan aficionados are, however, I think he has made an absolute masterpiece-quality score to fit this particular movie. It rises and falls, and even cuts out, brilliantly. There is also this ever looming ticking of a clock and even a possible sense of a heartbeat in the musical track, both of which manipulate the audience in all the right ways, stringing them along in this story and building and pressing the bounds of cinematic intensity in ways few films actually accomplish.
It is worth touching briefly on the actors in Dunkirk, which quietly has an incredible cast. Not only do you get the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, and Tom Hardy delivering the expected depth and gravitas to their different stories, but you also get incredible newcomers (yes, including Harry Styles) who really highlight each of their stories effectively. No one necessarily stood out performance-wise, but they all worked together so well that everything felt natural and fully realized. I bought every character as real and was thus able to buy in and empathize with their struggle despite not having a tonne of character development through writing to back these individuals up. That would not be possible but for the performances that definitely merit real praise.
The final thing I want to touch on is Nolan’s great understanding of this story and what it meant to Britain, the Allied Forces, and as part of the War. This wasn’t the end of World War II. It would be years even before the US would join, and years still until the oft discussed and captured invasion at Normandy and Allied pushback against the Germans. At this point, things looked bleak. It seemed very much like Hitler was destined to conquer the Western World. This film knows that and incorporates it brilliantly into its fundamental identity. There is very little sentimentality because it recognizes that, even despite this miracle, things aren’t over. This is but one major episode in conceivably the most world changing event in human history. The film ends on a famous speech which perfectly captures the way the film was meant to make you feel. That sense of place and tone combines to make Dunkirk one of the best to hit the big screen.
In sum, I think Christopher Nolan and company have made an absolutely magnificent picture here. To call this good or great is a disservice. I even think to compare this to other films from this year does it a disservice. This is a movie that will echo on for years to come and will become a genuine staple of the film canon in the way few ever do. I think Nolan has a real masterpiece, worthy of all the praise and recognition that he has received and more, on his hands. I am totally in awe of Dunkirk, and I hope everyone goes and absorbs this work of sheer cinematic excellence on the big screen and in the largest format available. It takes full advantage and is one of this year’s must see films.
Ryan’s Score: 10/10