Dunkirk was a brilliant way for Christopher Nolan to trick a pretty broad audience into seeing a largely dialogueless, nonlinear experimental film shot on 70mm film. Much of the story is told through action, with only snippets of conversation here and there to fill in essential details. The film is also divided into three sections—one on the land, one on the sea and one in the air, each taking place over a different amount of time (a week, a day, an hour).
Since much of the film is told visually, it’s of the utmost importance for it to look compelling, and Christopher Nolan, with cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, creates a unique look and feel. The colors are rich and vibrant and the scope is deep and epic. Many of the effects are done practically with a bare minimum of CGI, which helps put the viewer right into the action. This isn’t an overblown action spectacle. When bombs drop and bullets fly, it’s not a cool thing to see. It’s terrifying. In one moment early on in the film, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young British private, ducks for cover as a German plane drops bombs on a beach littered with Allied soldiers. One by one, the explosions ring out, closer and closer to Tommy, and the moment isn’t to illicit cheap thrills from the audience, it’s expertly made to show us the horrors of war in one elaborately-constructed shot. The action contained in the film is amazing to watch. The way it’s constructed makes it one of the most visually-impressive movies that I’ve seen in years. The shot I included up above was also used as the teaser trailer, and in a way, it works as a thesis statement for the staging of action in the film. The emphasis on that shot isn’t of the planes, it’s of the victims of the violence and carnage enacted by the war machines. First, one head pops up, then two, then everyone’s head snaps up toward the sky, faces twisted in fear.
Tommy is the main character for the events on the beach, as he desperately tries to escape Dunkirk, a city with hundreds of thousands of French and British troops stranded, ready to be slaughtered by the Nazis.
Tom Hardy plays a pilot in the air, leading the film to some exhilarating aerial dogfight action that is genuinely exciting.
Tom Rylance is a private citizen using his own boat to come to Dunkirk to help aid in the massive operation to rescue the troops on the beach.
If the film has a shortcoming (it does), it’s that the characters are never very well-established. The acting, although, is always top-notch, it’s just that we don’t ever have a reason to care if anyone lives or dies, other than the film tells us that we should. I understand the decision to do things this way, it was an artistic decision, one that reinforced the tension of the film by having it hit the ground running, but it didn’t necessarily work for me. When I write a review, I tend to add character names, but here it didn’t really seem to matter.
My lobbed complaint, however, is a minor one, because Dunkirk is still a thrilling, awesome movie, one that I’m glad has been made and released when it had been. It was a refreshing break from an era of sequels, remakes and superhero films. This is, instead, a grownup film that uses nontraditional narrative scopes, plays with the concept of time, and tells a true story that is almost unbelievable.
Christopher Nolan isn’t necessarily one of my favorite directors. When I see his films, I rarely have any desire to rewatch them. But goddamned if I’m not glad that he’s out there making the films that he’s making. Even when he’s making a Batman movie, he’s making a thoughtful, mature movie that’s actually about something.
Dunkirk is going to be nominated for a slew of Academy Awards next year, I’m sure. And it deserves it. It is, however, not a flawless film. It is, indeed, very, very flawed at times. But it’s a flawed masterpiece. It’s an audacious piece of work and one that I respect endlessly. I recommend it as highly as I can possibly recommend a film of its type.
For those interested enough in the real-life operation of the Dunkirk rescue should also watch the film Atonement for its five-minute-long, unbroken shot, detailing the same historical event. It’s fucking breathtaking.