Christopher Nolan has become a signature filmmaker of the modern era, crafting popular entertainment that redefines the source material and challenges the audience experience, whether it has been the comic book superhero film (‘The Dark Knight’ Trilogy) or film noir (‘Memento’, ‘Inception’). With ‘Dunkirk’ he turns his lens and pen (he’s the sole credited writer on a dialogue sparse screenplay) to a WWII story that came to signify his home country of Great Britain’s inspired, if at times futile, involvement in the war. What he ends up with is a work of staggering power that transports the audience directly to the frontline of an extremely harrowing situation.
Opening wide in Imax (the entire film was shot utilizing the bulky cameras that coax every detail into the frame) on a small group of British soldiers being rained upon by propaganda fliers heralding the German occupation of France, the audience is immediately thrust into the fray. Bombastically loud and crisp sound effects editing, the likes that have never been experienced in a movie, barrage the group with bullets and most of the young men unsuccessfully duck for cover. The only survivor, Tommy, played with realistic exhaustion and dread by newcomer Fionn Whitehead, serves as the audience’s window into one of three intersecting stories, as he makes various attempts to get off the doomed beach.
The Dunkirk beach served as the retreat point for occupied France, as Allied soldiers waited for salvation via transports to take them across the English Channel. The tragedy of this story is that the 400,000+ men on this small strip of land with no cover were sitting ducks for the German bombers and encroaching ground troops. The film is broken into three perspectives that are also contingent on the passage of time, as relayed in captions in the first section of the film. There is Tommy’s story, held up on the Dunkirk beach and within various vessels of thwarted escape, told over what amounts to one week. There is the story of a brave father (Mark Rylance), son (Tom Glynn-Carney), and young family friend (Barry Keoghan) answering the call as one of a multitude of civilian vessels coming to the beach in order to pack in as many soldiers as they can carry and return home. Finally, there is the truly spectacular extended aerial sequence, which takes place over one hour, and is intercut with the other storylines where appropriate. This portion of the film features astounding camera work, telling the story of Royal Air Force pilots played by Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy, using visual cues and minimal dialogue.
Nolan not only builds suspense, he and his crew sustain a heightened, suffocating, anxiety across the entire film to create a singular experience of dread and danger. The score by industry veteran Hans Zimmer (a collaborator on most of Nolan’s productions) is a masterclass in ticking time and heartbeat, a perfect marriage of image and sound that creates an overwhelming sense of drama over the actions of the characters on screen. Filmmakers can still mine WWII for dramatic stories – with Nolan’s entry he creates yet another innovative take on the material, and ends up with a unique, transporting, and transcendent masterpiece wrought across the largest screens in the land . . .
Written & Directed By: Christopher Nolan
Running Time: 106 min.
* * * * (out of four stars) -OR- A