In Dunkirk, director Christopher Nolan takes us deep into one of the cornerstone moments of World War II in which Allied forces from Great Britain, France, and Belgium are cornered by Nazi Germany. Surrounded by German troops on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, the only way to salvation for nearly half a million soldiers is across the tumultuous English Channel. With Germany mercilessly bombing the beaches and rescue ships by plane, the evacuation to England looks hopeless, but the valor and fortitude of the people will not be broken. The Miracle of Dunkirk has been marvelously crafted into an extraordinary movie experience unlike any I’ve ever known. Christopher Nolan has created a unique and intellectual war movie with Dunkirk that’s sure to be a contender this awards season, and will undoubtedly be analyzed for years to come.
Nolan masterfully tells the story of Dunkirk via three different but interconnected storylines, showing us this historical event from land, sea, and air. It’s a brilliant artistic approach and narrative form that is effectively used to keep the tension rising and the story exciting. The first narrative follows a young British soldier, one of 400,000 stranded at Dunkirk, as he tries to survive against German bombings long enough to be rescued and make it home. The second storyline focuses on a courageous father who answers Britain’s call for civilian help by using his boat to help aid in the rescue mission. Finally, the third component of the story features a British fighter pilot who battles German planes in the air.
To make things even more interesting, Nolan has us experience these three narratives through different lengths of time as well. The soldier’s story spans one week, the actual length of the evacuation mission. The father’s story spans one day, detailing his rescue journey to Dunkirk. The pilot’s story spans one hour, the amount of time his plane can fly with a full tank of gas. This dynamic adds a really creative spin to the way the story is told. It’s one of the things I admire most about the film, although the execution isn’t completely perfect. Dunkirk manages to retain a tight narrative form and focus, but as it attempts to build a climax across all three converging storylines, I feel it starts to get a little bit jumbled. As a result, I think it lessens the overall impact of the ending, and the conclusion left me feeling surprisingly underwhelmed for a film that had otherwise blown me away from the start.
Nolan opts to put the emphasis in Dunkirk on the story, as opposed to the characters. We’re not given any backstory for any of the characters, and truth be told, I couldn’t tell you most of their names. What matters here, however, isn’t who these men are, but what they do, as Nolan chooses to emphasize their actions and courage. The cast features some big names, such as Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, and Kenneth Branagh, and while the performances are strong throughout, don’t expect any acting nominations to come out of this film. Given the nature of the storytelling, most of the actors don’t really get much of a chance to stand out, but my favorite performances were by Rylance and Hardy. The movie also features the acting debuts of Fionn Whitehead, and One Direction’s Harry Styles. While both do an adequate job, I should note that Styles’ big scene marks the moment for me in which the movie took a slight nosedive.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration for me to say Dunkirk is the most immersive movie experience I’ve ever had. While I wasn’t able to see the movie in IMAX 70MM as intended, I did see it in Dolby Cinema at my local AMC Theater, and it was absolutely incredible. The visuals and sound in Dunkirk are simply as good as it gets, and seeing it in Dolby just highlighted that even further. I could feel my chair rumble with every plane that flew overhead, with every shot fired, and every explosion. It was sensational. Composer Hans Zimmer has also added a legendary musical score that is stirring, intense, and unforgettable. The cinematography is unbelievable too, and the aerial battles in particular are just breathtaking. If you’re going to see this movie, do yourself a favor and see it in the best theater you can. It is definitely worth it. The bigger and louder, the better!
Now I should explain that I don’t think this film is for everyone. It is not your typical war movie or popcorn flick. I think it’s more artistic, intelligent, and refined. I watched Dunkirk with a couple of friends, and one of them thought it was boring despite the fact that it’s constantly turning up the tension and is full of action. If it’s not a topic that in any way interests you, then you probably won’t appreciate it enough to even bother watching. If you’re wanting to see it just for Harry Styles, and I hope none of you are, I should tell you that his role in the movie is minor and he has maybe 5 minutes of screen-time in total. If, like me, you’re a lover of film and a student of history, then Dunkirk will be right up your alley.
As much as I am in awe of this wonderful film, I do still have a few issues to address, and it falls just short of earning a perfect score. It pains me to knock down a movie that does so many things so well, but there are a few issues that I can’t ignore. First and foremost, as I stated earlier, the ending just didn’t quite do it for me. Maybe if it had been edited a little differently it could have left a more emotional impact on me, but as it is, the conclusion felt a little empty and disappointing. I suppose it could be argued that it’s fitting to have mixed feelings about the ending, given that Dunkirk is not a victory but a retreat in which many lives were still lost. However, I think it still could have been wrapped up more effectively. Additionally, the storylines are occasionally a little difficult to follow as they merge in the end, which hurt the film’s pacing, and I found much of the movie’s dialogue to be hard to comprehend. While I don’t feel it impaired my overall understanding of the film, it was a big enough problem that it had me wishing for subtitles.
Dunkirk is a stunning cinematic experience and an impressive feat in filmmaking. Nolan has once again proved his worth as one of the most talented directors out there and now more than ever he appears primed to garner some much deserved award recognition. Dunkirk isn’t flawless, and it isn’t for everybody, but it’s still a unique and incredible achievement that I strongly recommend seeing, especially while it’s on the big screen.
5 Minute Movie Guy
*** Reviewer’s Note: After adding half-stars to my review scores, I changed the final score of Dunkirk from 4 stars to 4.5 stars to better reflect my opinion. ***