Christopher Nolan has become one of the most celebrated directors of his time. He has presented some of the greatest films of the past couple decades all based on fantasy material and original stories. For the first time the legendary director tackles a true life story in “Dunkirk” which chronicles the evacuation of 400,000 soldiers in the early years of World War II from the beach of the titular French commune. An epic war film with a reserved and intriguing approach, “Dunkirk” is truly a work of cinematic art and while it’s not perfect it cements itself among the best war films to ever hit the big screen all the same.
“Dunkirk” showcases the evacuation of troops during the Battle of Dunkirk in France in 1940 told through three different perspectives and three intertwining timelines. We see the evacuation play out on the beach (called the Mole) with Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, and Aneurin Barnard all playing soldiers seeking escape from the battle. The second segment focuses on the sea, with a mariner played by Mark Rylance taking his boat to Dunkirk to assist in the evacuation, assisted by his son, played by Tom Glynn-Carney, and a young ship hand named George, played by Barry Keoghan. Eventually they are joined by Cillian Murphy’s “shivering soldier” who is an unnamed character suffering from PTSD after being aboard a sinking ship. The third segment takes us to the sky with Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden playing a pair of Spitfire pilots battling forces over the English Channel to help support the troops in Dunkirk. The story plays out with all three segments merging into one and being displayed in pieces as the land story takes place over a week, the sea story over a day, and the air story over the course of an hour.
A word to the wise, go into this movie with an open mind. This is a war film like you’ve never seen before with a very stripped down tone and a unique approach that keeps you thinking and engaged. “Dunkirk’s” story is a delicate one to be told and Christopher Nolan, in all his greatness, was the perfect man for the job here. Despite having a LOT to sift through with this film’s source material, Nolan has put together a classy, well thought out, and tasteful display of a losing battle during the early years of World War II. There’s a hopelessness and a fear that oozes from the screen and the characters that really grabs you as you’re watching to see how it all plays out in the end.
One of the greatest things about “Dunkirk” is that it doesn’t force you to enjoy it. There’s nothing over the top in this movie as even the biggest set pieces feel natural, well placed, and significant. There’s VERY little dialogue and that’s because much of the film uses atmosphere and setting to tell the story. More on the dialogue in a second. “Dunkirk” manages to capture the same intensity, emotion, and powerful sense of truth that its predecessors are known for, but does it with a whole lot less, making it a fascinating emotional ride.
Now, the dialogue is an interesting thing with this film. As I said there’s VERY little of it. What IS said however is not wasted. Every time a line is presented it has purpose. There’s very little exposition and very little wasted breath which makes for a very different kind of film as it employs music, sound effects, and set pieces to grab the viewer and never let go. The music and sound work on this film is incredibly impressive in the same way a silent film would use sound effects and violins to tell a story with no vocals on screen. Throughout the movie a ticking clock can be heard in the background, exaggerating the seemingly endless danger these soldiers are in while on the beach. It’s that kind of detail that I REALLY loved about Nolan’s passion project as it adds a whole new layer to the story and to what is taking place on screen effortlessly. I found this to be a delightfully unexpected highlight to the film as it made me as the viewer feel like I was watching the battle truly unfold before my eyes and that I was an observer into something truly dangerous and significant.
Now as I said this film is NOT perfect in my opinion, but it’s still a very good movie. I’ll get to my biggest gripe in a second, but one that hit me early on was how…shall I say nameless the characters were. I’m not talking about the cast itself, just the characters who all seem to bleed together and don’t really stand out on their own. We get some shining individual performances here and there, like Tom Hardy’s take on a devoted pilot, Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of a mentally scarred soldier, and even Harry Style’s rather impressive presentation of a judgmental and paranoid young soldier. However, I couldn’t tell you any of these character’s names. without looking them up, and some didn’t even HAVE names. For the most part many characters SEEMED nameless, even if they did have a name, which prevented them from really being memorable in a film where they were already heavily overshadowed by the story itself. Sure we felt for them and cheered for them but in the end I found myself saying “yay for that…guy…whatever his name is”. It’s a very minor gripe, but it’s still a complaint all the same.
Now the big one, and one that I’m sure a lot of people disagree with me on. I found the film’s creative storytelling method to be ineffective and rather frustrating. “Dunkirk” moves back and forth between different events over a period of time within all three of its different settings, meaning one moment we are watching a desperate escape from a ship in the middle of the night and the next moment we’re watching a conversation in the middle of the day on the rescue boat and then to the plane at sunset and then back to the boat. This could have easily been a fascinating tool to drive the story, but for me it made for a confusing mishmash of different plot lines. I was confused and frustrated at times with how this story was being presented which took some of the fun away for me. This collection of stories could have EASILY been told in linear order with the same impact and quality and, in my opinion, it would have been better off for it. While it makes for a fun puzzle of a film as you see pieces come together over the course of the story, it seemed like an unnecessary format that damaged the film rather than building on what it had to say. I will also admit I feel this is as aspect of the film I will appreciate more upon further viewings, but this review is based on first impressions alone so there you go.
If you can look over these issues though, and maybe they’re not as significant to you as they are to me, you have an amazing film in “Dunkirk” and even if these issues bug you “Dunkirk” is still an amazing powerhouse of a movie deserving of all the hype that has surrounded it. It’s a very different and unique take on the war epic and presents us with a somber story with no real happy ending because the war has only just begun even after the credits roll. It may not be the five-star film I WANTED to see, but “Dunkirk” is easily one of the best non-superhero themed films of the year so far and in the end is still a work of art that deserve respect and acknowledgement.