Dunkirk is sweeping and intimate (review)

There are few directors today who can rival Steven Spielberg’s ability to make films that are as well-crafted and thought-provoking as they are thoroughly entertaining. These are true spectacles with heart and soul and Christopher Nolan has mastered the formula. With Dunkirk, he moves the war movie genre in a bold new direction and provides a thrilling experience that’s at once sweeping and intimate.

Don’t expect a bloodbath. Though war films that expose blood and gore are important to highlight the horrors of war, that’s not what this film is about. Instead, Nolan uses Hans Zimmer’s relentless score and turbulent situations to stress the utter fear and desperation felt by the soldiers. Its concern is with how these men, some incredibly young, react to such overwhelming circumstances and the collective heroism displayed in the process. Nolan takes ideas from Paul Greengrass’s masterpiece, United 93, a movie that also cranked up the suspense with little violence.

And, as in that film, many of the protagonists are unknowns, a wise decision by the filmmakers. The soldiers on the beach must’ve all been strangers to each other, young and inexperienced. They probably felt isolated even among thousands and having famous actors playing these lost kids might’ve taken us out of their reality.

The de facto main character is Tommy, played by newcomer Fionn Whitehead who gives a solid performance. We first see him with a group of soldiers in the city, wandering, perhaps in shock, but they’re quickly picked off one by one until all that’s left is Tommy, diving behind cars and climbing over fences until he finally reaches the beach whose introduction is both relieving and ominous. As he searches his barren surroundings, we see miles of sand peppered with thousands of troops awaiting rescue. It’s a quiet but powerful shot and a chilling vision of things to come.

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It was here in the spring of 1940 where more than 300,000 soldiers were corralled and had to wait for rescue while being attacked by German forces. This was an incredibly important moment in the war for the outcome would determine what kind of military force Britain would have to send back into the fray. Because large vessels couldn’t be used in shallow waters, British civilians had to create a makeshift fleet to come to the rescue. This is the situation in which Tommy and his compatriots find themselves.

This setting, or The Mole, acts as one of three distinct yet intertwining story threads taking place over different amounts of time. Nolan loves playing with time and narrative complexity and it’s the same with Dunkirk. We follow Tommy and other young soldiers he meets like Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (One Direction’s Harry Styles in a thankfully unglamorous role) as they try desperately to board a vessel while staying alive. What little information we get about the bigger picture comes from stoic pier-master Commander Bolton, played by the reliable Kenneth Branagh, almost regal in class and composure, and his colleague Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy). This thread takes place during the course of a week.

The Sea involves British civilians coming to their aid with private boats. Specifically, it focuses on Mr. Dawson, played by recent Oscar winner Mark Rylance in a beautifully understated role. His outer modesty masks his unwavering desire to help his fellow man, even if it means risking his own life and that of his brave son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and George, another young citizen hoping to do something meaningful. Along the way, they rescue a shell-shocked survivor of a torpedoed ship (Cillian Murphy) which causes tension on board, a plot thread that ends pitch perfectly. This section takes place over a day.

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The third thread, The Air, takes place within an hour and involves dogfights over the beach with Tom Hardy’s Farrier, muzzled once again for most of a film, providing support for the troops below. It says a lot about the actor that he’d allow his face to be covered so often in roles so devoid of vanity. But the Royal Air Force pilot he plays sacrifices so much for the greater good, so it’s fitting Hardy should do the same.

Though arguably unnecessary, the narrative device still acts as a unique way to portray the action. It’s neat seeing the various storylines intersect at certain points and having certain moments replayed to provide different points of view. Admittedly, I didn’t notice many of these instances; perhaps that’s my fault, but some fine tuning in the editing room might’ve provided some clarity.

Thankfully, Nolan omits scenes in war rooms hundreds of kilometers away, world leaders talking politics or even the Germans themselves. This allows the story to focus on the matter at hand: the survival, heroism and humanity of a band of brothers in a finite moment of calamity. Consequently, it’s a more intimate and urgent experience which is exacerbated by dozens of close-up shots so we can see every sign of pain and struggle in their defeated faces.

Yet, even with all the storylines, characters and action sequences, we’re guided by Hoyte van Hoytema’s masterful camerawork that should be honored with an Oscar nomination come winter. What could’ve been a disorienting jumble of images, like similar films, is, in fact, impeccably vivid and coherent. We’re able to easily discern who and where our characters are and we’re spared annoying rapid-fire cuts. Scenes in the airplanes during the dog fights feel authentic and the best of their kind. Other gorgeous shots include a plane flying over the beach, passing lines of soldiers in total silence, as does the beach introduction or a quietly burning airplane. It honestly feels Kubrickian at times.

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Some might criticize the perceived lack of character development, which is fair. Far be it from a movie critic to downplay that aspect, but in this case, backstory and dialogue aren’t overly important. Having relative blank slates actually adds to the movie’s focus on communal heroism and helping your fellow man regardless of their identity, again, similar to the aforementioned United 93. This aspect also, ironically, brings you closer to these characters and their dire situation by making it feel less like a movie and more like a real experience. That said, the actions of these men and what little dialogue they provide is surprisingly effective. One short sentence uttered by a young man speaks volumes about his growth and morality.

Dunkirk may not appeal to those looking to escape into a breezy summer popcorn film. But there’s no denying that this is the work of a man so unabashedly dedicated to his craft. With the use of mostly practical effects, including real WWII planes and ships, he’s created a brilliant experience with such a sharp attention to detail. And, like, the third act of a thrilling action film, he keeps you on the edge of your seat, only here it’s for the entire movie.

Rating: 4.5/5 atoms

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