Christopher Nolan is known for Fantasy, epic Science Fiction concepts, and the Dark Knight. Films like Inception, Interstellar and The Prestige. But with Dunkirk, he has returned to the real world. A true story, as a matter of fact. One of the most epic tales of World War 2, a mass struggle to escape from the beaches of Dunkirk while the Allied Forces closed in and pummeled their ships and troops with constant aerial attacks. It’s a story of survival, more than anything else, and Bruce Wayne is nowhere in sight.
The film is drops us right in the thick of it. We see a group of young soldiers, walking through the street. Suddenly, they begin to be picked off by high caliber gunfire. They run desperately, trying to get the safety. But even the one soldier (Fionn Whitehead, in his debut) who is able to make it free of the gunfire is far from safe. As we soon learn, the beach is the only place to hide, but there’s plenty of danger. From here, we begin to see the beach bombed and ships taken out just yards from the dock. In classic Nolan fashion, he introduces a number of interwoven storylines, all connected to the beaches of Dunkirk.
There’s the land, following a number of soldiers made up of some incredible British actors. Cillian Murphy, James D’Arcy and Kenneth Branagh put in great performances. Newcomers Whitehead, and Harry Styles do a remarkable job themselves. Then you’ve got the air, with Spitfire pilot Tom Hardy manning the skies. He’s almost laughably underused from an action perspective, given his stature, but just having his face in the plane adds a weight to it. Then you’ve got the sea, where we follow Mark Rylance, and his son, as they bring their civilian vessel to help rescue the troops. We cut back and forth between these threads as the film continues.
The film itself is incredibly shot. the scope and scale of it is remarkable, while the more intimate, close up shots are equally incredible. Nolan’s ability to create mass scale without the use of CGI is remarkable. If it’s there, I rarely noticed. Ships tip over and sink, masses of soldiers are bombed and fly from the helm. Planes swerve and spit gunfire with remarkable realism. The films sound effects are perhaps it’s biggest technical strength. The incredible visuals are partnered with some of the most visceral sound effects I’ve ever heard. The gunfire, the explosions and the screams will rattle your bones. Much more than the blood and gore that frequents many war movies these days. Dunkirk has none of that. It really doesn’t need it.
Some of the shots in particular are worthy of mention. A shot on the beach where the men dive to the ground with bombers flying overhead. Our camera angle plants us next to one solder, as each bomb that lands is getting closer to us, down a straight line. It’s an incredible shot. The film’s aerial shots are fantastic, and give us some fantastic views of the war torn scenery, but also the visceral cockpit action as our pilots battle it out, wits and machine guns their only tools.
While the film is visually and audibly remarkable, what’s really unique about it is character based. This is a film that provides essentially nothing in the form of character development. We are dropped into the action. The action essentially never ceases from there. In fact, I’d argue it’s one of the longest stretches of pure action and suspense ever filmed. We learn nothing about our characters except for what they do within the action itself. Even that is often learned without words. It’s a risky proposition, as Nolan needs us to care about each character. We do.
Perhaps it’s the collectively struggle, and the fact that we feel as though we’re all in it together. It makes us care by default. But it works, and creates more time to dive into the visceral action scenes. The intimacy of some of them also act as character development too. The closest thing we see to this form of character development is on Mark Rylance’s boat, where most of the film’s dialogue is spoken and where we learn a little about the small crew’s motivation. This particular plot thread acts sort of like the film’s heart, and it works effectively.
Nolan teamed up with his trusty musical genius Hans Zimmer for the score. Hans delivered once again, with a somewhat simple but effective soundtrack that get’s the blood pumping. The tick-tock nature of the music gives us an impending sense of dread. It helps us feel the importance of each moment, and helps us understand how they tie together. It’s quite remarkable. While the film is visually incredible, it certainly wouldn’t be as effective without it’s score.
War movie’s are generally chock full of inspirational moments. Dunkirk is a different beast. It’s all very doom and gloom. There’s little to consider inspiring in the films first 90 minutes. We’re just watching, hoping these poor souls can find a way to survive the chaos. But as the film’s intertwining threads begin to come together, we begin to sense the bigger meaning of each, and you find the emotion start to swell up inside you. After watching this mayhem helplessly, it’s almost like you’re just begging for it. Nolan delivers it right on time. It’s final few sequences are just remarkably simple suspense, that is done to perfection.
In my eyes, the film has few weaknesses. While some will point to some of Nolan’s common areas of criticism, as a Nolan believer, I tend not to buy into them. To me, this is one of Nolan’s very best films, and he’s done an incredible story of British resolve the justice it deserves. He’s also been careful not to Americanize the story too much, with a blockbuster happy ending. It’s inspirational, but all very true to what you read when you look up this remarkable period of World War 2, before Pearl Harbor and before the American’s joined the struggle. Dunkirk isn’t like most war movies. It’s fundamentally different in it’s approach. The film really is about Dunkirk, and everything that happened there, as a whole. It’s pieces all add up to the whole.
If you make it out to see Dunkirk, you’ll find yourself quoting Winston Churchill’s famous “we’ll fight them on the beaches” and wondering why it took Nolan so long to make a war movie.
Movie Melt Score: 9/10