The method of war is simple: soldiers are stationed to protect the civilians back in their homeland. But what if the civilians had to rescue the soldiers?
Welcome to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a vivid film that takes an unconventional route to telling its incredible tale. Nolan gives the World War II genre a fresh entry by tapping into a true story soaked in survival, grit, and miraculous efforts from a different angle.
In the depths of World War II, the British and French armies had their backs against the wall. Whether it was through the air with fighter jets or on the ground with artillery fire, Germany was closing a door real fast-and this particular battle came to a head on the beaches of Dunkirk, France.
Nolan wisely cuts the story into three separate parts: the struggle of soldiers (including Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles) fleeing the shore and battling the sea awaiting rescue; a British civilian boat (captained by Mark Rylance) coming to help rescue the soldiers out of the water; the British destroyer planes (piloted by Tom Hardy, making a lot out of a little).
Did I mention this is the first World War II film to be told in a non-linear fashion? The three stories are told in separate sequences before folding over onto each other in the end of the film. Nolan didn’t just want to make the standard war film; he always aims to do something new and ambitious, setting the table for future filmmakers.
Nolan is not here to imitate others. The storytelling twist is a daring risk that matches the director’s reputation for pushing the narrative. He changed the comic book adaptation game with The Dark Knight, and is trying to push the envelope on the war genre here with his bold methods.
While the setup takes a little bit to load up, Dunkirk really hits its stride midway through the film, where Hardy’s fighter jet is gunning down German planes dropping missiles on a sprawling sea full of Brits, who are also dodging torpedoes through the water taking out their sanctuary. Overlooking all of this is British General (Kenneth Branagh) who can see “home” from across the shore.
Dunkirk’s greatest strength here is its energy, a source that powers the brisk 106 minute running time, blending the three stories into one core ideal: survival. The film never stops moving and has no time for lukewarm or melodramatic subplots. Everything you see feels real and worth its weight in film. Michael Bay should hire Lee Smith to edit his films.
While the film lacks a true star, the ensemble method that war promotes gives you all the emotional pull you need. Some of the soldiers react realistically selfish, something that would happen when lives are placed in the balance and death is imminent. Hardy’s Farrier doesn’t get any extra moments of bravado to hog the attention, neither does Rylance’s Mr. Dawson, who is trying to save as many soldiers as he can with a fishing boat.
Dunkirk is the third solo screenwriting effort for Nolan, who usually collaborates with his brother Jonathan and David S. Goyer on the scripts. The dialogue is minimal and restrained, keeping all the attention on the torturous endeavors that befell the soldiers during this fateful week.
The action is visually stunning, with Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography wrapping the film in dark grays and blues: a gorgeous punch drunk saturation of brutal war. The sound effects and editing of this film are a guaranteed Oscar nominee, heightening the scenes with a realism that makes you look up to the ceiling in the theater like those 400,000 men looked up to the sky during the evacuation.
The finale of the film ties the three stories together and avoids the easy route of action hero bravado, instead following the understated tones of the entire film. The powerful aspect of this event doesn’t require extra juice, so Nolan doesn’t apply it in the final scenes.
While Hardy and Branagh are very good in limited roles, Rylance gives the best performance, playing a regular man who saw that it was his duty to save as many men as possible. A quietly potent role tailor made for a quietly powerful actor who recently won an Oscar for a “less is more” performance in Bridge of Spies.
While I admired the skill shown in the film and the attention to detail from Nolan, Dunkirk isn’t an easy film to love. I wouldn’t put it next to Dark Knight, The Prestige, and Inception, which I think are his best films. Dunkirk exceeds with an understated cast, fast pace, and diabolical technique to its story, but it lacks a true emotional connection, which may rob some from falling for it.
Don’t let that deter you from seeing it though. Dunkirk is an extremely well-done World War II film that puts the emphasis on the mass instead of the individual, and it doesn’t let up until the credits roll. Christopher Nolan’s bold non-linear story line has reset the table for future dabbling filmmakers to take their shot at making something different and original.
Dunkirk matched the hype and delivered a gem worth taking about.