Boy, Christopher Nolan really takes “Go big or go home” literally, huh? His newest film, Dunkirk, is the culmination of everything he’s been working toward ever since Memento, in terms of storytelling, editing, cinematography, and scope. And while the film isn’t quite as strong as the best films in his repertoire, he has constructed a thrilling feature that sets out with an absurdly discomforting mission and accomplishes it: to put the viewer directly into the action of the Evacuation of Dunkirk, and force them to experience the terror alongside the soldiers.
The film follows the famous Battle of Dunkirk, where British civilians commandeered every boat in Britain to cross the English Channel and rescue nearly 400,000 soldiers, trapped on the small beach of Dunkirk by Germany’s larger, brutally prepared army. In a bold storytelling choice, the film follows three periods of time each surrounding a different facet of the famous evacuation. The first part takes place on the Beach (called “The Mole”), and follows a group of young British privates, including Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and Alex (Harry Styles), as they try everything in their power to board a boat and escape. This takes place over the course of a week. The second part takes place on the Sea, as the captain of a small British vessel, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), and his crew of son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and curious friend George (Barry Keoghan) cross the Channel to rescue as many soldiers as possible, including a PTSD-ridden survivor of a U-Boat attck (Cillian Murphy). This takes place over the course of a single day. The third part takes place in the air, as RAF pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) hunt down as many German planes as possible to buy more time for the boats to make their rescue. This takes place over the course of an hour. The film jumps between these three stories seamlessly, tying together one large tapestry that gives the audience a complete look at what happened in June of 1940.
If it was ever a question before, it’s all but settled now: there really isn’t another director in history who possesses the same control over the technicality of filmmaking like Christopher Nolan. This film is a true spectacle. I can’t even begin to imagine how this movie was even made considering his specifications regarding practical effects and shooting on IMAX film stock, but I really can’t imagine how it turned out so well. This is a stunning film from beginning to end. Let’s start with the editing, because in a film like this the editing is vital. This film has two incredibly difficult jobs: balancing a non-linear storyline taking place in different time frames, and keeping the tension ratcheted up to 11 for a full 106 minutes. Both of these are damn-near impossible jobs, and doing both at the same time has really never been done before. Editor Lee Smith flawlessly sets a new precedent with his game-changing work here, and after two nominations without a win, I would be shocked if he doesn’t take home a well-deserved Oscar later this year.
The cinematography is equally stunning, and that’s mainly because of Nolan’s handle over IMAX. Having slowly upped the amount used on each film, he has finally figured out how to use the ugly cuts between 70mm and IMAX as a plot device, only using the former for claustrophobic conversations, while the big stuff is saved for massive projections of Biblical proportions. The images are so crisp and so clear, you’ll want the biggest screen available to you to see it. The splash of the sea and the diving of a plane have never seemed so engulfing or real as they do here, and the credit for that goes to Hoyte von Hoytema, who has captured one of the most gorgeously shot movies in years. He films each frame like a spiritual sequel to the second half of Titanic; only here, there are no CGI tricks to cheat – he’s actually capturing real-life images, in a way that puts to bed any sort of argument for CGI over practical effects. Hoytema is just as much a part of this film’s secret weapon as Smith, and they deserve acclaim for serving General Nolan well.
Of course, while the technical prowess of this film is truly remarkable, damn near perfect, I do need to address the score and the sound mixing. Working with IMAX is no easy feat-it has a tendency to muffle and distort dialogue in an unnatural way. It’s also not helpful when you have an overbearing score that blasts at full volume throughout the movie without a hint of subtlety. Now, I love Hans Zimmer, and I think his score for this film is excellent, but I couldn’t help remembering Gravity when I watched this movie, a film with a good score that was utterly useless to the film and ended up actually hurting it more than helping. The blaring of Zimmer’s score overwhelms the screen, gilding the lily on tension and, worst of all, drowning out the dialogue onscreen. Now, you can get away with drowning out dialogue in most action or war movies. Hell, Nolan’s Interstellar survived sound issues just fine (I actually wish there were more when it came to Anne Hathaway’s love monologue in that movie). However, Dunkirk is a film with almost no dialogue throughout. Every line uttered is vital, as you can barely understand without it. What’s worse, the privates in the Mole sequence are all cut from the same mold. They’re all scrawny British lads with similar haircuts. It is impossible to tell them apart without listening to them speak – and that includes Harry Styles, one of the biggest pop stars on the planet! To have the sound design not only affect the technicality of the production, but the audience’s understanding altogether, is a major issue that needs to be addressed. Now I would like to point out to the reader that I saw this film on an IMAX Xenon (essentially a really good knock-off) screen, so there’s a chance that this is only an issue with IMAX versions and not normal screenings, but it’s still something I feel I should warn viewers about.
Another issue this film faces is that, emotionally speaking, it takes some time getting into everything. From friends I’ve spoken to about this film, as well as my own experience, it takes about twenty minutes to full settle in to what’s happening, due to the complex story structure, the lack of dialogue, and the overbearing score. It’s something that was going to knock this film down a full letter grade. However, emotion is exactly the reason that I wholeheartedly love this film. Once I’d grasped what was going on, I settled in and watched the story unfold. I watched the characters I couldn’t name and the stories I could barely follow, and I was handling it all fairly well. And then something happens about an hour into the film. It’s not quite a spoiler to say what it is, but I’d rather you all experience it for yourselves. And when that scene came, I wept. I wept for the characters, I wept for relief, I just wept. The film had subtly gotten me emotionally involved, and lulled me into a sense of uneasiness without realizing it, so that when ease was offered to me, it was overwhelming. It would be offensive of me to say that this is what those soldiers felt on the beaches in 1940, but that is sort of what Nolan wanted to do: he wanted us to understand what these men went through. We may only be experiencing one iota of the terror that they did, but we can now understand, and through this empathy, we can properly honor the men who gave their lives to save not only their country, and not only our country, but the entire world from an unspeakable evil. The final five minutes or so are also unspeakably beautiful, and I cried again there, in a wave of emotion that I did not expect to experience. I tell you all this because making me cry is a high bar to hurdle, and I can tell you all that I’m willing to knock off any sins I can to reward a film this emotionally rewarding, letter grades be damned.
Truth be told, the actors in this film don’t really get a chance to stand out in the midst of the size and scope of things, but that doesn’t mean they give bad performances. On the contrary, everyone across the board is top notch, whether they have to physically perform or stand there and emote. I think the two best performances come from Murphy and Rylance, with the former giving a heartbreaking portrayal of PTSD while the latter portrays the brave, caring man who risks his life for the men who serve his country. Kenneth Branagh shows up on occasion as the commander of the troops, and while it’s a small role, the way he can portray character with just his eyes is the main reason I cried in that scene mentioned above. Hardy and Lowden are both cheer-worthy as the RAF pilots, and Whitehead and Styles are great as the two privates, with Styles doing most of the talking throughout the film until Whitehead delivers the final monologue. It’s a cast where no one gets a chance to shine, but if even one person didn’t bring his A-game, it all falls apart.
Dunkirk has its flaws, to be sure. It is not exactly perfect, what with its sound issues and the score and the challenging nature of the story. However, it is, at least, technically perfect, and proves how great movies can be with a strong director at the helm. Nolan is something of a modern day Spielberg – a director who can work in several different genres to create smart blockbusters that people of all ages can enjoy, and do it with heart (to varying degrees). I’m aware this movie isn’t perfect, and I was frustrated with certain aspects for sure, but I can’t help but love a movie that sticks the landing this successfully. Any movie that can make me openly weep not once, but twice inside an hour forty-five runtime deserves all the praise in the world.