Dunkirk is a thrilling and emotional war movie that is singular in its form and a high-point in Christopher Nolan’s already impressive career
Tick. Tick. Tick. That’s the sound that underscores almost all of Christopher Nolan’s film about the evacuations at Dunkirk during the height of World War II. However, what we’re counting down to exactly is never truly apparent. Is it to the end of the evacuation? Or perhaps to when the German troops — who are never truly seen — finally make their final push into Dunkirk? Nolan plays with time by tracking the story in three vignettes. “The Mole” takes place over one week, “The Sea” over one day, and “The Air” over one hour. The three storylines are interwoven into each other before crashing together. However, no matter if you’re watching the speeding story of The Mole or the slow burn one of The Sea, the tension never truly abates until that clock stops ticking.
With barely any dialogue or even context for where the movie takes place in World War II, it’s disorienting to orient yourself into the story. Still, from the haunting opening shot of five soldiers scavenging through the empty streets of Dunkirk you are immersed into the narrative. Eventually, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) emerges as our general point of view for “The Mole.” However, he is certainly not the typical war movie protagonist. There really isn’t anything typical about Dunkirk. There are no incredible heroics or selfless acts of bravery. Nolan portrays the desperation that soldiers felt unflinchingly. For the soldiers shown in “The Mole,” the only goal is to get off the beach.
“The Sea,” which is anchored down by recent Oscar winner Mark Rylance, — he has a good chance of being back in the Oscar race with this role — is a slower build, but no less tense. However, this is also where we get to know our characters a bit more. Specifically, when a soldier (Nolan regular Cillian Murphy) is brought onto Mr. Dawson’s (Rylance) boat — the Navy commissioned the vessel to help with the evacuation — after the ship he was on was struck by a torpedo, his strong PTSD begins to endanger those on board. PTSD is misunderstood, but Nolan handles the plot line here with grace. For a director that is often criticized for forgetting the humanity in a situation, Dunkirk is made up almost exclusively of human moments. Even scenes of action have a feeling of dread or our fragility.
To call Dunkirk singular would be an understatement. Among war movies, it is an outlier. It’s more poetic than it is brutal. It can even been described as an arthouse version of war. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema finds the beauty in the chaos and helps Nolan look past the carnage of war and instead look at the desolation. This isn’t a battle. The battle is over. This is a race for survival. A lesser filmmaker would intercut the war scenes with scenes in Berlin strategizing the final assault into Dunkirk or London with Churchill. Instead, it keeps its attention on the beach, the sea, and the air. It’s that focus that makes you unable to rest during its lean 90-minute running time.
There’s been a recent discussion over Netflix and its place in the film industry. fIs it okay to watch movies in their unintended setting? In the case of Dunkirk, watching it in any place other than a movie theater — ideally an IMAX — would be a disservice. This movie will immures you. The wide hellish landscape portrayed on screen engulfs you to the point that hearing a plane roaring overhead will make you flinch much like the soldiers on the beach. At times, you hear the noise, but don’t see the plane and instead watch the reactions of the soldiers screen. A huddled line of soldiers standing on a pier waiting to board the next evacuation boat suddenly turn their faces to the sky to see the unseen enemy before being bombarded the next moment. In those moments, your breath is taken away. It’s filmmaking at its finest.
At one point, Tommy, who has teamed up with Alex (Harry Styles, who does good work here) and another unnamed soldier (Aneurin Barnard) are aboard a ship that is hit by a torpedo. As the water rushes in, we are caught up in the swell and are soon consumed by darkness. The terror of the moment seeps into you. Even though you’re watching it on a two-dimensional screen, the scene surrounds you.
All the while, in the sky, Farrier (Tom Hardy), a Royal Air Force Pilot, is in a dogfight protecting the beach during the evacuation. Hardy is sublime in the nearly silent performance. However, the storyline is more than an action sequence. Dunkirk is about heroes. The actual evacuation was seen as a military disaster that has been largely ignored until now. Well, Nolan has found that heroes in war movies don’t have to be the brave soldiers going out in a blaze of glory. Instead, it’s the ones that save one person. It’s the ones that show their humanity for a brief moment. It’s the ones that see the mass of soldiers huddled on the beach as individuals, instead of one collective mass. Dunkirk is as much about the evacuation as it is the men and women who experienced it.
Christopher Nolan is the biggest director to rise to prominence in the 21st Century, without qualification. However, it’s only recently that he has learned how to balance his incredible style with substance — check out our review of Interstellar. Well, if Dunkirk is any indication, he’s found that balance. Dunkirk is nothing short of a masterpiece. No other director would attempt a war movie like this. From the artful cinematography to Hans Zimmer’s disorienting score, and the non-linear narrative to the dialogue-less emotion, Dunkirk is a practice in the bursting through the boundaries of filmmaking. But it’s more than the craft. It has heart. Through the entire movie, every character has an ultimate goal that is right there, but is never within reach: home.