Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branaugh, Harry Styles, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden
Directed By: Christopher Nolan
Plot: A cinematic retelling of the Battle of Dunkirk, where British forces were pushed to the sea, and struggled to evacuate nearly 400,000 men as they were slowly being picked off by German soldiers, unable to be held back by the allied French army.
What Works: You can always count on a Christopher Nolan film to look absolutely stunning. It doesn’t matter if he’s using CGI or practical effects, the film will look breathtaking. He does this by handpicking an exceptional director of photography. He’s reusing his Interstellar cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema, Not only has Hoyte done exceptional work here in Dunkirk and Interstellar, but he’s also responsible for visual masterclasses like Her and Let The Right One In. Nolan also pairs himself with an excellent composer, which this time is Hans Zimmer, who has worked with Nolan through his Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, and Interstellar. These things, plus Nolan’s extraordinary vision are what really make a Chris Nolan film so great. The cherry on top here is the sound design, which should immediately be handed the Oscar. I literally can’t imagine anything else coming close. Talk about a film where great sound design actually matters. Normally, great sound design enhances the film and makes it better, but here… it’s key to the success of the film. Poor sound design, and you have a lifeless film. What works about Dunkirk is that you feel like you’re right there with the soldiers, due in part to the amazing sound team. Also, can we give Nolan a standing ovation for making a war epic that’s actually under two hours? I mean, thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. Another huge round of applause for making a war film, where people die, without making it a gore fest. The film is no less intense, and no less remarkable because it lacks the realistic violence of war. This movie is non-stop action. Characters are in constant peril the entire film. It only lets up about 10 minutes before the movie ends, as it starts to wind down. Basically, you’re on the edge of your seat for 90 minutes. In my theater, I noticed a guy in front of me, LITERALLY on the edge of his seat the entire film. I don’t think he ever felt safe enough to lean back in his chair.
What Works (Potential Spoilers): I don’t normally break this up into two parts, but I wanted to discuss something that has had critics divided. A handful of critics have not loved Dunkirk because it lacks “characters”. I think that’s bullshit. I think films like Free Fire lacked characters, because they were in one place and never grew or changed. Not only did we not get any backstory, but no one was different at the end, except some were dead. Here, I felt connected to characters without names, and characters who never spoke. Grand storytelling can triumph over typical character structures. For example, you’re immediately introduced to a soldier played by Fionn Whitehead. You follow him basically the entire film. He’s one of a few main soldiers you jump back and forth to. He meets a soldier on the beach (Barnard), a character I became invested in even though he never spoke. Much of this film lacks dialogue, but the words that are spoken are real and important. I felt like I knew and understood Cillian Murphy’s character and his plight. And Mark Rylance is pretty freakin great in this film too. His reason for being there genuinely moved me. And for what it’s worth, Harry Styles can act. Haters back off. He’s really good in this, like… freakishly good for a first timer.
What Doesn’t Work: For me, the only thing that threw me off was the time jumps. I wonder if there’s a way to tell this story without moving backwards and forwards and backwards again in time. I’m sure Nolan had his reasons, but I’m not sure the film was made better for it. I rarely question the decisions he makes as a director, but the first time jump really threw me for a loop. Then I found myself questioning every single scene, as to its context. Like, did this already happen? Who is in the present/ Who is in the past? It didn’t completely ruin the film for me, but it did take me out of the film a bit. It’s not even enough for me to deduct anything from the film, but I do think there might be an even better cut of this film without the time jumps. I think he wanted to set up the three main characters/storylines from the beginning, and kept checking in on them in evenly dispersed intervals, even though their stories started at different times in the actual mission.
Final Word: Dunkirk blew me away on several levels. I’m glad Nolan got his groove back after Interstellar, which isn’t even a bad film. He’s right back at the top of his game, and Dunkirk is easily one of the best films of the year. It’d be a shame if the Oscar voters forgot about it, but I just can’t see how that’s possible. If you’re a fan of war films, Dunkirk is one of the greats. If you’re not a fan of war films, think of this as a non-stop action film (and remind yourself that this is PG-13).
Final Grade: A
PS. My favorite shot of the film is the shot of the guy whose idea it was to build the pier. I like the look on his face when his idea turns out to have worked. It’s a very “fuck yeah” moment. It’s just a shot of a character we’ve only seen twice, but i love that Nolan included it. Talk about an unsung hero in the war.