Christopher Nolan is without a doubt one of the greatest filmmakers working in Hollywood today. He’s responsible for a number of remarkable films such as Memento (2000), The Dark Knight (2008) and Inception (2010). However, with nine major motion pictures under his belt, Nolan decided it was time to return to a passion project he had come up with 25 years ago and share it with the world. This project turned out to be his take on a gritty war film based on the battle of Dunkirk, France. To capture the authenticity and tension that these soldiers went through, Nolan treated the production of Dunkirk as if it were for a documentary; and it shows. The movie is bleak and shot in a way that screams practicality. With solid plot structure and crafty camerawork, Nolan proves that you don’t need blood, guts and bloated CGI to tell a visceral, valiant war epic.
The battle of Dunkirk takes place in France during World War II between the Allied troops and Nazi Germany. Trapped on the beach of Dunkirk (as the enemy slowly caves their way in), the 400,000 British and Allied forces struggle to survive as they await incoming transport ships. As these soldiers wait, German bombers manage to sink nearly every ship that travels these English seas, making escape from this beach seem virtually impossible.
The plot structure of Dunkirk is broken up and told from three different perspectives: The Mole, The Sea and The Air. The Mole refers to the pier on which the soldiers are trapped on as they await the next transport ship. The British soldiers you’ll follow here include Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles), with a time frame that spans over the course of one week. The Sea refers to the Royal Navy commandeering the many “pleasure boats” and yachts roaming the English channels who were brave enough to answer the military’s call for help. The main mariner you’ll follow here simply goes by the name of Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), and his travels are tracked over the course of one day. The Air focuses on a battle between Royal Air Spitfires and Luftwaffe planes that are laying waste to the soldiers and boats below. There are three Spitfire pilots on display, but the main pilot you’ll follow goes by the name of Farrier (Tom Hardy). This high-octaned air battle spans over the course of one hour.
Clocking in at about 106 minutes, Dunkirk is one of Nolan’s shortest films. This short runtime allows for little room for error, so Nolan wastes little time getting straight into the action. There’s rarely a dull moment due to the stunning visuals, as Nolan shot about 75% of the film using 65 mm IMAX cameras. With the addition of practical effects – Nolan literally shot this thing on the actual Dunkirk beach (even using some of the ships that made the real journey in 1940) – the audience is treated with a true cinematic experience. Some of the film’s best moments comes from the battles in the air, even putting you in the pilot’s seat at one point. It’s an immersive experience that makes for a more powerful story. You will feel as if you are right with these soldiers and civilians as they struggle to survive.
Don’t let the PG-13 rating fool you either. Although the battles are far less graphic than most war epics, the story structure is setup in a way that gives a sense of power to the action and soldiers you’re following. Nolan does a great job of building tension with payoffs that pack an even heavier (and louder) punch.
Unfortunately, the one downfall to Dunkirk‘s short runtime comes from the lack of emotional attachment with the characters. Although the film is ultimately bigger than the characters and more-so about the event, it would’ve been nice be able to build along with the different characters introduced on the screen. This lack of depth is most prevalent during the travels of The Sea (due to the lack of action), sometimes taking you out of the intensity established from the Mole or Air battles before it.
Dunkirk‘s sound design is arguably the best element this film has going for it. Hans Zimmer provides Nolan with yet another masterful score that captures the power and emotion during each event. Zimmer’s unique use of a ticking clock (which is actually a synthesized sound of Nolan’s actual pocket watch) with his grand orchestra adds a level of intensity that compliments the film really well. The musical numbers evoke the right emotion at the right time and ultimately bring out the best in the battles on the screen.
With the unfamiliarity of the Dunkirk battle with most American audiences, there’s plenty of room for surprise to be had; potentially providing for an incredible experience for many moviegoers. The cinematography work from Hoyte van Hoymtema is both compelling and grand. This is a movie that’s meant for an IMAX screen. Although the plot might not stick to a formulaic war movie structure, Dunkirk‘s cinematography is enough to make it unique and feel like a fresh entry in the war genre. Whether this film stands towards the top of Nolan’s illustrious filmography is ultimately up to you, but there’s no doubt that it’s one of his most remarkable looking films to date. The work that went into the creation of this film is most impressive and it shows in the final product.
FINAL SCORE: A-