***1/2 out of ****
(for intense war experience and some language)
Released: July 21, 2017
Runtime: 106 minutes
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Jack Lowden, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy, Harry Styles
Imagine the Normandy sequence that opens Saving Private Ryan stretched out to a full-length feature, and you start to get an idea of what Dunkirk is like.
Christopher Nolan’s first war movie doesn’t consistently move at the same intense, chaotic clip that Spielberg’s landmark D-Day invasion did, nor is it as graphic (Nolan keeps the gore at bay with a PG-13 rating), but it employs the same fundamental tactic, stripping down the narrative to its bare, brutal essentials. What’s left isn’t a traditional story arc but, more simply, a pure visceral experience.
And this time, it’s not about an Allied invasion. It’s a retreat.
Little known to American audiences (because this true story took place in late spring of 1940, about a year-and-a-half before the U.S. entered World War II), Dunkirk dramatizes the harrowing evacuation of British troops from the French beaches of the titular town. 330,000 soldiers had been cornered by the advancing German armies, escalating to a bleak moment of truth: escape, or die.
Nolan’s riveting re-creation is an arthouse blockbuster, three intimate stories from land, sea, and air, all told on an epic scale but in an experimental construct. Each one tracks different but interwoven timelines: the evacuation that took place over the course of a week, the heroic efforts of a private motor yacht that helped save soldiers on one consequential day, and two air gunners who fended off German fighters during the course of a single hour.
Dialogue is sparse and often just functional, giving us just enough to comprehend the magnitude of the impossible stakes. It’s refreshing, too, that this barebones approach is liberated from backstory and exposition. Knowing that someone has a girl or family waiting for him back home is an unnecessary empathy; enduring the horrors of war, especially under such vulnerable circumstances, is enough.
While events of the three narratives are largely separate from each other over the first hour, it’s clear they’re all headed on collision course. With such broad time disparities (a week, a day, and an hour), it’s hard to grasp how Nolan will actually bring everything together, but then as we begin to see recognizable events appear in other timelines from different POVs, Nolan’s genius becomes apparent in its simplicity.
As the interconnection starts to become clear, the drama ratchets even further – especially as Nolan cuts together similar but unrelated events in parallel. The effect isn’t nearly as complicated or ambitious as Nolan’s time-twister Memento, but the appropriate implementation of this subtle time-jumping adds another mesmerizing layer.
There’s a good deal of warfare here, but not in a combat context. Instead, the retreating Allies are simply targets, at times grouped together like fish in a barrel for opportunistic German bombers. In IMAX, the fear of being a sitting duck as German planes bear down on the horizon becomes vicariously palpable. The aerial photography is at times tangibly dizzying, too, as you feel your stomach turn with the planes, all shot in IMAX’s biggest 70mm format.
It’s hard to say how intensely this will translate to smaller screens with simpler sound systems but, for what it’s worth, I can’t recall having felt such ominous life-threatening dread – or the consequences of its toll – during other films presented in large formats. Suffice it to say, Nolan’s operatic aesthetic has created something new, and singular.
It’s tempting to draw stylistic parallels to modern war movies, but with so much of the film unfolding in action rather than words, Dunkirk’s kindred forerunners can be found in the Silent Era (Wings, Battleship Potemkin, Birth of a Nation) or early talkies like All Quiet on the Western Front.
Even so, Nolan crafts a symphonic soundscape that’s overwhelming, masterful in both artistic and technical execution, and amplified by composer Hans Zimmer’s fitting bombast that ranges from percussive propulsion to an eerie Vangelis-like spirituality.
But regarding modern examples, Dunkirk is perhaps more closely hewn to The Thin Red Line, yet where Malick’s examination was philosophical, Nolan’s is something more primal; not a meditation but a complete and total submersion.
Consequently, there’s not much to dissect here. That’s a stark contrast to the labyrinth narratives and their thematic implications that have been a hallmark of Nolan’s career (Memento, Inception, The Dark Knight, and many more). Still, with the film’s devastating authenticity, there remains a great deal to contemplate. The entire experience is certainly enough to provoke sober reflection, especially with its ending notes of heroism, nobility, sacrifice, and grace.
A Dunkirk vet, now living in Calgary, cried while watching the premiere, attesting to its veracity by saying, “I never thought I would see that again. It was just like I was there.” I believe him.