Written & Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D'Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance
Summary: From May 26 – June 4, 1940 nearly 400,000 Allied soldiers were stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk as German troops closed in on land and sabotaged evacuation efforts. Dunkirk tells this story from three perspectives: land, air and sea.
I've been looking forward to Dunkirk for at least a year. And it did not disappoint.For some reason, despite our obsession with World War II, the Dunkirk evacuation rarely appears on screen. The only time I can recall the Dunkirk crisis appearing in a World War II movie is 2007's Atonement (there is a beautiful scene in that film that contains one of my favorite long takes of all time). So I've been very eager to see how Christopher Nolan, a director who usually brings us films that dance on the edge of science fiction, would handle this piece of history.
I'm very, very impressed with what Christopher Nolan did with this film. He really played to all of his strengths as a filmmaker and a writer and trimmed the fat in areas where many of his previous films suffered. Dunkirk has an unrelenting tension that left me with enough of a knot in my stomach that I forgot to eat my popcorn while I was watching it. It definitely toed that line between a disaster movie and a war film; but Dunkirk's substance outweighed its impressive special effects. I'm pretty confident in saying that this is Nolan's best film; it is certainly his best screenplay.
I don't think you can talk about Dunkirk in comparison to other war films or even other Nolan films without addressing the stunning lack of character development and the way that it actually ends up servicing the film. Usually, this is a criticism of Nolan's work – he writes characters in a way that feels completely disconnected from any kind of emotional reality. He works with some incredibly talented actors who have given performances in other films that are easy to connect with, but as soon as they're in Nolan's screenplays, something is missing. So, I was expecting some thin character motivations and plot lines in Dunkirk. However, there was no sloppy character development, because there was NO character development.
In another film this might be my biggest criticism, but in Dunkirk I think it actually improves the film. It's clear that Nolan was interested in telling this story from a British perspective. So, rather than muddying the waters with learning about a character's backstory and heightening the drama to increase the emotional payoff at the end of the film, Nolan simplifies and tells us a story through the eyes of three different groups of men; those on land, those at sea and those in the air. Their motivations are simple: they want to go home. They want to survive. The Nolan instead harnesses the power of cinematography and sound to increase the drama and panic of what was occurring on those beaches. This triptych approach to storytelling worked very well. Not only are we getting varying perspectives on some of the same events, scenes are often cross cut to give us the impression that they are all occurring simultaneously. However, these three perspectives weave together to tell the full story in a very satisfying way.
Technically speaking, I think you could almost say Dunkirk is a masterpiece. The sound design was incredible. Nolan's movies always have a really intense sound design, but this was mixed so well with the foley and Hans Zimmer's score that it seems exceptional. There are moments in Dunkirk where I swear I could feel my rib cage rattling with the depth and density of the sound coming from all around me. It wasn't just volume, it was intense and it put me on edge for most of the film. I really liked the score; Hans Zimmer almost scored this like a horror movie, there's a constant ticking like a stopwatch that adds to the anticipation on screen.
The cinematography and editing were also really well done. The camera was used in a smart way, providing big, sweeping, beautiful shots of the beach and the ocean that were so crisp on an IMAX screen that I felt like I could reach out and touch the sand. Yet, the intimate shots in and under water were equally impressive with an almost frenetic, panic-inducing effect.. The camera follows the sway and flow of the environment on screen, there are moments in a ship sinking and aircraft chases where its difficult to determine where the sea ends and the sky begins. I thought this was cool effect, but if you're prone to motion sickness and seeing this in IMAX I can see how that could be a problem.
My biggest qualm with Dunkirk was really related to gore and realism. There are bombs being dropped left and right, several ships sinking, plane crashes, you name it – and I think the worst injury that we saw was a man laying on a stretcher with some gauze on his chest that had some bright spots of blood. At first I suspected that maybe Nolan made some concessions on the more intensely gory scenes in order to maintain the PG-13 rating. However, the gore was so absent from Dunkirk I'm thinking it was a deliberate choice. I'm torn on how I feel about this. I certainly don't need graphic imagery to make me understand the horror that these (very) young men are witnessing. In fact, I think you can make the argument that some other war films like Hacksaw Ridge and We Were Soldiers almost sensationalize the gore and bodily trauma suffered. However, Dunkirk kind of fails to explicitly show you the consequences of war. By not showing the graphic injuries suffered does the film sanitize the violence? And, if so, doesn't that do a disservice to the veterans of Dunkirk? I'm a little torn on this one.
Final Verdict: B+
Dunkirk is a very, very impressive movie and will rank highly among the best war films of the last 20 years. I understand why Nolan didn't take that approach of complex character building, and frankly, I'd rather he abandon it entirely than to do it poorly, but ultimately, I like a little more narrative substance in my films. I'd like a reason to really care about the characters outside of just human peril. That being said, this is an incredible movie telling an incredible story with unrelenting intensity.
A few random anecdotes:
- Dunkirk demands to be seen in 70mm. Do not waste your time and money seeing this on a regular screen. Drive an hour. Pay $20 for a ticket. And go see Dunkirk in IMAX. The visuals are beautiful and are really meant to be seen on that giant screen.
- The cast is almost inconsequential. I'm not sure what exactly attracted actors like Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance to Dunkirk… they both do great with what was being asked of them, but there is very little opportunity for actors to really flex that muscle. Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy are Nolan loyalists, but there's not a ton for them to do here. You could almost argue that Nolan is under-utilizing the talent in front of him, but I still think this minimalist approach to writing these characters worked well.
- Speaking of Tom Hardy – I have a bone to pick with Christopher Nolan. Twice now, he's cast Tom Hardy in a role where half of his face is hidden behind some kind of mask. For 90% of the film all that we see of Tom Hardy in Dunkirk is the three inches between his mask and goggles. You do not cast that beautiful face and then hide it for the entire movie. That's just a cruel, sick joke. (Yes, I know. It's a testament to his ability as an extraordinary actor to play a role with minimal dialog and 3 inches of skin. But he's pretty. And I deserve to see that.)
- I didn't know Harry Styles was in this movie until a few days ago. And, had I not known that, I'm not sure that I would have recognized him – mostly because I'm not a 14 year old girl – but also because the costuming/hair/makeup did a good job of blending him in with every other attractive, dark haired boy on screen. There are no big performances in Dunkirk, it doesn't need it, but Harry Styles did just fine – I was surprised. I thought he'd be a distraction, but he wasn't at all (TAKE NOTE GAME OF THRONES. THAT'S HOW YOU THROW A POPSTAR IN A PERIOD DRAMA WITHOUT HIJACKING THE SCENE…I'm still salty about that fucking Ed Sheeran scene in last week's episode…).
- Dunkirk has a short running time by Nolan standards. Most of his films clock in at well over 2 hours, but Dunkirk is a tight hour and 45 minutes.
It is of course way too early to be talking about the 2018 Academy Awards, but I am supremely confident that Dunkirk will get nominated (and maybe even win) for Best Sound Editing,Best Sound Mixing. There's a good chance it will end up getting an editing nomination, maybe cinematography, and potentially director – but it's too soon to say for sure. Nolan will definitely be up for a DGA.