Christopher Nolan Scores a V for Victory with Dunkirk

18 Jul

Christopher Nolan’s latest, Dunkirk, is a film for anyone who wished the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan was an hour and a half longer.

The director of the The Dark Knight Trilogy, The Prestige, and Inception has given us a definitive account of one of World War II’s most heroic and miraculous — not to mention, pivotal — events, and in the process, has made a movie that is a real must-see.

Dunkirk isn’t a conventional war film — which is to say, it’s not about a battle. It’s actually about a retreat. During the early stages of World War II, nearly 400,000 Allied soldiers from Britain, Belgium, Canada, and France were trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, a small coastal town in France, by the German Army. The soldiers could practically see home — it was only 26 miles away across the channel — but the shore was so shallow that large naval ships couldn’t get close enough to take them there. So they just stood there, lined up in the sand, seemingly stranded. They were sitting ducks.

While the British soldiers waited to be rescued, Germany attacked from above, taking out as many enemy fighters as it could. But all hope was not lost: Under air and ground cover from British and French forces, and with the assistance of civilians in their own private boats, troops were slowly and methodically evacuated from the beach. Even with their backs against the wall, the Brits remained resolute and were determined to save their own.

Nolan filmed Dunkirk with both IMAX and 65mm cameras, and visually, it’s stunning. It opens with a beautiful shot of leaflets raining down on soldiers informing them that they’re surrounded. That quasi-peaceful image is short-lived, though, as German sharpshooters begin taking out the Brits one by one, right there in the street. The film then shifts to the beach and doesn’t relent for almost two hours as it ratchets up the tension of this dire situation.

Told from three perspectives — land, sea, and air — Dunkirk focuses almost exclusively on the point of view of the British soldiers themselves, not the strategists, leaders, or government officials who are pulling the strings. And that helps to provide an almost eyewitness account of what this experience was really like. In that spirit, Dunkirk is often chaotic — intentionally so — providing a sense of heightened reality that feels immersive and immediate. The soldiers don’t often say much; they don’t have to. The looks on their faces say it all.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that the timeline of the film isn’t straightforward — the action all takes place in chronological but not concurrent order. In the earlier parts of the film, scenes get time to breathe. But as things progress, and the situation becomes more dire, Nolan cuts between them in rapid succession, enhancing the urgency. There are times when you’re not sure exactly what’s happening and when, relative to other things you’re seeing — especially when one character, previously shown on one vessel, shows up on another.

Yes, with its you-are-there perspectives and pulse-pounding Hans Zimmer score (plus an ever-present ticking stopwatch that Does. Not. Stop!), Dunkirk is a cinematic experience that puts audiences through the ringer, especially when viewed on a giant IMAX screen — which, I’d say, is the preferred way to see it. You will feel every bullet hit and every bomb explode. (Just make sure the sound in your theater isn’t just loud, it’s clear too.)

Watching the action, you can only imagine what it must have felt like to be part of Nolan’s large cast of actors — which includes Nolan repertory players Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy, plus Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, newcomer Fionn Whitehead, and pretty-boy Harry Styles, who actually makes an impressive film debut. When they’re not getting shot at, they’re under water, climbing rope ladders, or huddling together waiting for the tide to come in. Clearly, making this film wasn’t an easy experience.

This is a true ensemble film, often told in wide shots, with no one actor standing out as a lead, and all working together in service of the director’s vision. Indeed, Dunkirk is just the latest example of Nolan’s now-patented brand of epic, ambitious, confident filmmaking. He wrote, directed, and co-produced Dunkirk, and damn, if it isn’t impressive.

In short: Nolan is waaaay overdue for some awards recognition, and he is sure to clean up when trophies are handed out early next year. Clear some room on the mantle now.

Dunkirk is a beautiful, powerful film. A brilliantly crafted, artistic blockbuster, that, unlike, say, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, eschews war porn and the conventions of typical war films in favor of something more apocalyptic. You won’t see much blood on the sand, but there are plenty of dead bodies. And the sense of doom is pervasive, with soldiers looking up at their grim fates every few minutes, hoping to be spared, or diving into the oil-filled waters when one of the rescue boats gets attacked.

And yet, it’s not all massive and grand. Some of Dunkirk‘s most beautiful images are its quietest: The aforementioned leaflet drop, watching a resigned soldier walk off into the sea, wordless “conversations” between soldiers sharing a canteen of water … these have just as much impact as the louder ones.

Yes, Dunkirk is an overwhelming sensory experience. (In a good way.) But more importantly, it’s a tribute to heroism in the face of almost certain death. For these soldiers, just making it home alive will be considered a victory. Nolan has honored their bravery with one of the year’s best films.

I’m giving Dunkirk an A.

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