If you thought Baby Driver was the must-see movie event of the summer then hold onto your butt! With heart-stopping special effects, lavish cinematography, and intimate, matter-of-fact storytelling, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a soon-to-be-classic.
With recent films Inception and Interstellar, Nolan leaned heavily on ham-fisted theatrics, exceedingly complicated plot structures, and booming soundtracks. In Dunkirk, Nolan strips much of the histrionics away to tell a lean and mean, true-to-life story of survival. Far and away, it’s his best work since The Dark Knight.
Told from three perspectives—the land, sea, and air—Dunkirk tells the story of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, in the north of France, during World War II. If you’re not familiar with Operation Dynamo, I suggest reading up on it prior to seeing Dunkirk. The movie assumes that you have some beforehand knowledge of the events that are about to unfold. And honestly, it’s an awe-inspiring story of resilience in the face of near-certain destruction; it’s definitely worth the read.
On land, a trio of soldiers, one of whom is played by Harry Styles, ferret their way aboard ship after ship in numerous failed attempts at escape. Styles really took me by surprise. He delivers a stalwart performance and has a magnetic onscreen presence. It reminded me of watching David Bowie on film. It’s not necessarily good, it’s definitely not bad, but it’s super engaging.
On the open sea, Mark Rylance—who always strikes me as a little too understated—plays a civilian with teenage sons who’s determined to sail his yacht to Dunkirk and rescue as many soldiers as possible.
Tom Hardy—in a standout performance—plays a Royal Air Force pilot that’s trying to shoot down German planes before they strafe the soldiers on the ground or sink the boats in the harbor. Much of Hardy’s face is obstructed by a helmet and oxygen mask, but his eyes are haunting. With a simple squint or raise of an eyebrow, Hardy allows the audience to see the thought process behind life and death decisions. Truly magnificent work.
The true hero of Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan himself. As the writer, co-producer, and director, this is his singular vision. There’s extensive practical effects, thousands of extras, WWII-era planes, and even boats that were used in the real Dunkirk evacuation. The scope and complexity of the filmmaking is mind boggling.
The script is deceptively simple. There’s very little dialogue and suspense is created through overlapping details. Many of the characters deal with harrowing events with a matter-of-fact, stiff-upper-lip attitude. This allows the “Dunkirk spirit” to stand front and center. In a scene where a pilot crashes into the ocean and nearly drowns before escaping from the cockpit, he thanks his rescuers with a singular, “Afternoon.”
Like Interstellar before it, Dunkirk is concerned with the passage and perception of time. “We wanted an intensity not based on horror or gore. It’s an intensity based on rhythm, and accelerating tension, and overlapping suspense scenarios,” Nolan said in an interview with The New York Times. “Dunkirk to me is one of the most suspenseful ticking-clock scenarios of all time.” As if to highlight this point, Hans Zimmer’s score incorporates elements that sound like the ticking of a clock.
Perhaps the movie didn’t need to end with a soldier reciting Winston Churchill’s “we shall fight on the beaches” speech, but, all in all, Dunkirk is epic moviemaking done right. It’s gripping, heartbreaking, and electrifying. Dunkirk will soon be included on many top war movies ever made lists.
I saw Dunkirk at Seattle Cinerama in 70mm. The size of the screen paired with the Dolby Atmos audio system makes for an immersive experience. A film of this magnitude deserves to be seen in a theatre and, if you can swing it, I highly recommend catching one of the 70mm or IMAX showings.