It shouldn’t take very much to sell someone on the thought of a Christopher Nolan war movie. Dunkirk is about what happens after the clashing of armies, focusing on a British retreat at the beginning of World War II trapped in a battle for time. It’s bleak, it’s beautiful, and it’s one of the greatest war movies I’ve ever seen.
Dunkirk is a fictional story based on the true events of the British retreat and miraculous evacuation of over 300,000 soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk in northern France—just 80 miles across the English Channel from their homeland.
The story follows a band of young soldiers trying to find a ship back to England over the course of a week, a father, son and his friend on a small yacht commissioned by the British Navy to cross the Channel to aide the evacuation, which spans the course of a day, and two RAF pilots trying to fight off German bombers over the course of an hour, all woven into the desperate attempts to get thousands of men of the British Army back to England to prepare for what was believed to be the unimaginable fate of an imminent German invasion.
There are few other directors working today that can successfully capture the full potential of the cinema experience than director Christopher Nolan, who pushes the bar even further with Dunkirk. The scope of the British retreat and all of its bleakness, tragedy, violence and desperation on display in Dunkirk is gut wrenching.
Filmed in the 70 mm IMAX format, the intensity of the sweeping aerial dogfights, the scale of the thousands of desperate, exhausted and emotionally drained men spread across the stretching beachfront, and the crushing hopelessness of ships being bombed and torpedoed, the weight of the sea and the anguish of survival are dramatically displayed on a huge, enveloping format that immerses the viewer.
The scope of the Dunkirk evacuation is meticulously crafted among the three story-lines, personalizing the drama but never losing sight of the immense challenge of saving an entire army. The frames aren’t filled with the typical greasy Hollywood glamour coating scenes of ships exploding, planes crashing, and men fighting, but instead communicate a realistic devastation of the evils of war and the betrayal of fate.
The moments of war depicted in Dunkirk have never been put to screen in a blockbuster of this scale before, truly capturing hopelessness in the expression of a leader, the terror of a soldier running from gunfire, the bankrupt stamina of an army, and the unrelenting unfairness of war. It’s like the beach landing scene of Saving Private Ryan stretched over two hours, and you feel it.
Dunkirk is incredibly light on dialogue, focusing instead on character moments and major events to communicate emotion. It doesn’t need its characters to say how much they miss home; you see it in the determination of their actions, and the desperation on their faces. You feel the misery of a destroyer sinking, the terror of men drowning, the relief of little victories and the heartbreaking sacrifice of heroes.
Dunkirk loads an unbelievable weight on you as you watch it, successfully expressing the stress and tension of the characters and moments playing out on screen. The key to this unyielding viewer dread is the magnificently effective soundtrack from Hans Zimmer.
Starting early in the film, Zimmer introduces a very simple ticking metronome with subtle variations that uses an audible effect to sound like it’s constantly building over the entire course of the movie, never relenting. I found myself stiff and sweating by the end credits
Another major standout in the movie was the character played by former One Direction member and solo pop star Harry Styles. I can’t spoil why he stands out. It isn’t due to bad acting, but rather a character choice that makes me think Nolan is intentionally playing with the audience’s familiar perception of Styles.
The three time frames covering land, sea and air in Dunkirk make for an interesting juxtaposition of stories, with all three lining up to magnificent effect at the climax of the film. This story mechanic doesn’t work so great earlier in the film, where some of the cross-cutting and editing felt like it was getting in the way of the story instead of servicing it.
Spectacle isn’t the appropriate word, but there are few other movies with the visual and emotional impact of Dunkirk. It’s a heavy film, with unfair violence and depressing tragedy at every beat. The victories are small, and the defeats seem infinite. This is not so much a patriotic, flag waving triumph. Instead, it’s a somber, sophisticated look at a horrifying, embarrassing defeat that manages to leave the audience feeling as though they’ve gone through hell themselves.
It does miraculously manage to pull through just a glimmer of hope, but it’s clear the audience has only earned this after having to face the tragedies and sacrifices made by miserable, abandoned men scrapping for survival after all hope had been lost.
See Dunkirk on the biggest screen available to you and prepare to be unsettled.