Image via We Are Geeks
Review written by David Malone and Ethan Collins
Released July 21, 2017
Rated PG-13 (Intense War Experience and Some Language)
Directed, Written, and Produced by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception)
Cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema (Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)
Music by Hans Zimmer (Gladiator, Inception)
Edited by Lee Smith (Spectre, Interstellar)
Also produced by Emma Thomas (Memento, The Prestige)
Starring Fionn Whitehead (HIM, The Children Act), Tom Glynn-Carney (Casualty, The Last Post), Jack Lowden (War & Peace, Tommy’s Honour), Harry Styles (Saturday Night Live, Where We Are), Aneurin Barnard (Ironclad, Mary Queen of Scots), James D’Arcy (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Hitchcock), Barry Keoghan (Stay, Trespass Against Us), Kenneth Branagh (Valkyrie, Murder on the Orient Express), Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later, Batman Begins), Mark Rylance (The Gunman, Bridge of Spies), Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises, The Revenant)
The second world war rages! Canadian, Belgian, French and English troops are hemmed in at Dunkirk, where German troops advance, forcing Allied forces onto the beaches, waiting with optimimistic hope. There is only one thing that remains for the Allies: the will to survive. This will is great, and will cause men to forsake their friends and even do them harm. Yet not all men will forsake their own.
Dunkirk begins ominously and bleakly, much like the trailers before the film’s release. One thing immediately noticeable is the amount of intense and realistic tension among the men as they hopelessly try to escape the death trap that was Dunkirk. Be warned: this tension will not subside until the movie’s end. The very air that the men breathe reeks of desperation. To make matters worse, the British mainland is so close the British troops can almost see it, as if it is taunting them; because they know how treacherous that short journey is. If they can hop onto a boat without getting shot or bombed by German fighter planes, there’s still a danger of getting torpedoed by one of the many lurking U-boats. If they somehow avoid the U-boats, there’s always the Dornier Do 17 German bombers to drop off a couple explosive care packages onto the Royal Navy’s ships. The guys just can’t catch a break.
Dornier Do 17 Bomber – Image via Wikipedia
Christopher Nolan, one of the best current directors, and usually a decent screenwriter, has directed some of the best films of the past 20 years. Though Nolan’s stories aren’t always plotted and written as amazingly as they could be (though they are always pretty good), and you sometimes feel distanced from his often cold characters, Nolan tells his stories skillfully and never ceases to surprise, always leaving us with a persisting thought or image. Any time he’s coming out with a new movie, we’re excited. To hear he’d be writing, directing, and producing a WWII film about the events surrounding the evacuation of Dunkirk? This movie shot right up to the top of our most anticipated list. However, despite how interesting and amazing this story is, it begged the question: what kind of film would Nolan be able to craft out of this? It is not a happening that lends itself well to your typical Hollywood war film. Well, like the story itself, this is not your typical, Hollywoodized, formulaic war film.
Nolan has wanted to make this movie for 25 or so years now, but he put it off because he wanted to get as much experience as possible directing big budget movies before attempting Dunkirk. He also studied the movement and energy of the great silent films to help him convey the story through almost only visuals.
The script has an extremely precise structure told from three perspectives: land, sea, and sky, and told from his characters points of views, doing away with much of your usual movie dialogue, and doing away completely with exposition filled back stories. He also wanted the entire film to employ the forward energy that he always injects into his third acts, and much of this is accomplished via the way the story is told, in its nonlinear structure.
Nolan introduces us to a few different people, but we never get that moment where everyone sits down and talks about their back stories, families, and other lives. Abruptly, the characters are dropped into the action without much background as to what’s going on, leaving the viewer to figure out what the main characters are doing and how they fit in with the story. There are numerous moments of silence among the characters, something appropriate but not overly common for Nolan. Survival is the only thing on these characters’ minds. Nolan only shows us the characters through their responses to this horror. We get very little dialogue, and the bits we do get are often panicked or nervous exclamations and mutterings. People just aren’t articulate when they’re scared. There’s no time.
Not only are the main characters people of few words, we often don’t even know major characters’ names. Dunkirk is a documentation of an immensely important time in history, and it’s a snapshot of a society and their response to an ever-oncoming darkness. Nolan isn’t interested in biographies here, but he is interested in humankind. There is an inherent bond people form when they survive a terrible situation, and that bond occurs without people knowing about each other’s lives. Another thing we liked is that, refreshingly, the characters here make clever decisions. They are not geniuses, neither are they set up to be. They are regular humans become ingenious in their time of need, when faced with the necessity of surviving. This is such a welcome thing after seeing so many big blockbusters with idiotic characters.
Getting into the technical side of things, Hoytema’s cinematography manages to be something hard to achieve: vigorous, agitated, and in the action, while also clear and defined. It lets us feel like we are there without giving us a shaky cam headache. The camera lingers and follows steadily. It holds on many nightmarish, chaotic images, letting us see, vividly, what’s happening. The lighting all looks natural and haunting, too, and this adds something additional to the visuals.
Dunkirk Beach Evacuation – Image via Britannica
Also, much care went into keeping all things historically accurate. Even the historian shouldn’t be drawn out of the film much. The historian Joshua Levine, who has already covered World War 2 through his writing, was a consultant on the film. When the film does go off a tad in historical accuracy, they have a solid reason for doing so, such as using fictional characters so we can follow them wherever Nolan wants to take us, or using real boats that are a little different than the actual ones used so that they can have real boats there instead of CG ones, or using yellow-painted German planes to tell them more easily apart from the British fighters. Realism of the visuals is a good thing when the story is told through visuals throughout this relatively short and nicely tight one hour forty-five minute runtime.
We don’t want to spoil too much about the time structure for you, but it isn’t exactly linear, cut up and edited to give us the story in three interwoven parts. The way Nolan carries this out allows us to get a good feel for the moments, images, and ideas Nolan is presenting. Time is jumbled up and confused in the fog of war. In an “Aha!” moment, Nolan’s latest nonlinear storytelling trick lines up several character decisions neatly. Maybe it’s a little too neat, and for a movie so focused on showing this as “it is what it is,” showing heroism without descending into romanticism, maybe it’s a little too on-the-nose, and perhaps it’s too confusing for a movie that doesn’t need some pretentious decision like that. I still liked it, it’s the only thing here that really comes close to pretension, and I think it showcased Nolan’s theme and point well.
The sound editing and soundtrack are amazing. The movie is loud and visceral, confusing sometimes and deafening, but not overly so. The sound editing was on full display for the aircraft in the film. Subtly, you can hear the faint screech of the Bramo 323 engine residing in the German bombers, only to hear the ominous sound grow as it approaches the Allies. Then, mercilessly, the bombers drop their payload onto the cowering men, while the men pray that they will be spared from the booming, deafening, limb-ripping doom that the bombs deliver. The sound production was truly amazing, and amplified the effects that you would expect from a torpedo ripping through a ship, or a well-placed sniper bullet piercing a man’s skull. Lay on top of that the soundtrack, and we’ll be thinking about this for weeks. Hans Zimmer’s score blares, and it sometimes mixes with the rest of the sound editing, also knowing when to settle down then unsettle us with noises that keep us on the edge of our seat and ratchet up the tension little by little. Whatever you think of Zimmer’s vociferous scores, here it is powerful and effectual, helping propel the film’s forward energy. It is a metronome for the film’s timing and a clock for the characters and story, a timer counting down to the indomitable, impending doom.
The acting is great too. Not only can Nolan fashion amazing visuals but he can also put together fantastic actor performances. Kenneth Branagh brings an optimistic stoicism, and, once again, Tom Hardy acts, with the lower half of his face covered, acts with just his eyes and movements, but not quite like the character Bane he played in The Dark Knight Rises. Even Harry Styles put in excellent work. The standout by far is Mark Rylance, whose turn as a British civilian who comes to the trapped soldiers’ aid with his recreational yacht, is understated and quiet yet incredibly compelling. Rylance is widely considered one of the greatest stage actors of his time, and now he has deftly brought that ability with him to movies like Bridge of Spies, and now Dunkirk.
Overall, Dunkirk is an impressive cinematic achievement, a technical marvel. It’s at least a little different from any other war film you’ve seen. I’m not sure yet how it ranks compared to the great war films, but I think everyone should see it, because it shines a brilliant spotlight on an important slice of history. Be warned, however, that it is an intense experience that grips you from the opening frame and doesn’t let go until the credits roll, when you realize you’ve been holding your breath and exhale a sigh of relief, but – like the soldiers and civilians involved at Dunkirk – find you aren’t as elated as you think you should be. The feelings and emotions linger with you, but this isn’t a sad ending. Sometimes it is victory to survive to fight another day, to not let the enemy take everything from you.
We’re going to give Dunkirk a 92%