Rated: PG-13 for intense war experience and some language
Dunkirk is a special film. There has been no shortage of World War II films. Many based on well known true stories such as the massive D-Day offensive on the shore of France. Further the storming of the Omaha beach is the most well known of the D-Day stories. It was the start of the allies retaking occupied France from Nazi forces. However, there is an earlier story many of us in America don’t know. A story that takes place before America entered the war, during the fall of France to the Nazis. After a devastating defeat close to 400,000 British and French troops were left stranded on the shores of Dunkirk. Hitler’s army was closing in on all sides and it looked like it would end in a massacre. But, Winston Churchill pursued a daring plan to save as many men as possible using navy and civilian boats under cover from daring fighter pilots. This is the story Christopher Nolan has undertaken to tell in his newest film.
Dunkirk is an unconventional film, it isn’t heavy on plot. Nolan drops viewers onto Dunkirk beach after the crisis has started and from there makes you a passive observer following three groups of people. First is the soldiers on the beach, of which we primarily focus on two young men with occasional cut aways to a couple officers. Second is a British spitfire pilot as he attempts to offer air support for the evacuation. Third is a group of boats answering the call to help rescue soldiers from Dunkirk. Here we focus in on a family of a father and his two sons. From these three groups we watch events play out. Noticeable here is a lack of any third person perspective. Nolan keeps you trapped with each group wether it’s on the beach, spitfire cockpit, or small boat. For instance one scene in which a Nazi plane bombs the beach. The soldiers duck and cover as the bombs fall. The camera stays on one soldier as a series of explosions move move right at him. The camera never flinches leaving us in the path of the relentless bombs as well. The way Nolan uses the camera pulls the audience into the action on screen. The reality of what’s happening is as inescapable for us as it is for the characters. The cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema who previously worked on Nolan’s “Interstellar” and Spike Jonze’ “Her” is extremely effective at creating an immersive experience.
The special effects carry on Nolan’s pungent for practical over CG. What little digital effect there are blend perfectly into the practical making them virtually indistinguishable. This emphases is another element that keeps Dunkirk grounded and believable.
While there are a few notable faces in Dunkirk’s cast like Tom Hardy, (Inception) Cillian Murphy, (Inception) and Kenneth Branagh (Valkyrie) there are several young actors who are not as well known at least to American audiences. However, the films lack of “star power” isn’t in any way a hindrance. Every member of the cast delivers performances that are grounded and naturalistic. At no point did I feel like I was seeing a big budget movie star acting on screen, rather I was swept up in the characters and their struggle to survive.
In terms of criticism, I feel some elements are subjective which makes it hard to mark them as pluses or minuses. Dunkirk doesn’t follow a traditional story structure and is somewhat non-linear. This can be disorienting until you figure out what’s happening. Despite being unusual I think the presentation works for the film though I understand it may frustrate or even annoy some. Likewise the lack of an objective view point may trouble or confuse some viewers, again I thought keeping audiences trapped in these environments created something uniquely compelling. Lastly the charge could be leveled that there isn’t enough resolution at the end of the film. There is some merit to that, however there is another side to the argument. Dunkirk is a story that takes place in 1940 relatively early in World War II. Thus it is only a small snap shot, one story in set a midst a much bigger backdrop. Thus Nolan starts the story after it starts and closes it before it ends. As you can see there are arguments for or against each of Nolan’s choices however the biggest indictment may be on Nolan himself. Critics and audiences have been waiting to see Christopher Nolan do something different. When news came the he was making a war film there was hope that he would lay his trademark style aside for once. That Nolan would tell a straightforward story and tap into a human element some thought missing from his past work. The narrative and editing choices in Dunkirk don’t mark a departure from Nolan’s usual style. This is bound to trouble some who have been wanting something different. However, if you love Nolan’s films then you will likely enjoy this one as well.
Dunkirk is one of those films that is more of an experience, especially in Imax where the imagery and sound envelope you. British Spitfires and German Luftwaffe’s scream over head rattling the seats. Gunfire rips through the screen leaving reverberations in your gut. It’s almost overwhelming which may or may not work for you. Dunkirk is a magnificent film no matter what formate you see it in but as the bulk of the film was shot in Imax formate it is the truest way to experience it.