In May 1940, Germany advanced into France, trapping Allied troops on the beaches of Dunkirk. Under air and ground cover from British and French forces, troops were slowly and methodically evacuated from the beach using every serviceable naval and civilian vessel that could be found. At the end of this heroic mission, 330,000 French, British, Belgian and Dutch soldiers were safely evacuated.
When news broke a few years ago that Christopher Nolan’s next film would tackle the Dunkirk events, the film world went into a frenzy as he followed in the footsteps of the great directors who have made iconic war films. The comparison between himself and Spielberg has always been reoccurring as they’re both known for their grand productions. Before its release, many were calling Dunkirk Nolan’s Saving Private Ryan. The statement itself is rather vague but the argument could be made that Nolan’s newest is the best in the genre since the 1998 film.
What makes Dunkirk such a brilliant film is how it throws a curveball at the war genre. Coming in at 106 minutes, the story is told through three different perspectives: The Mole takes place over one week, The Sea is told over the course of a day, and The Air which takes place over an hour. The nonlinear story is a fresh take on the genre as all the stories are taking place at different times before they eventually intertwine with one another. The short runtime is a benefit here as the film never eases up on the dread, immersing the audience in the terror and destruction.
With minimal dialogue, the film never drags, often feeling like it’s one long set piece while managing to keep the viewer invested throughout. The characters that are followed throughout the film don’t speak much, instead using the desolate surroundings to provoke emotion. With how dark and dour the film is, there isn’t time to get a backstory from each character. From beginning to end, there isn’t a chance for the characters to sit down and spark a conversation. What makes Dunkirk so compelling is how edge of your seat thrilling it is. Adding more time to develop the characters would harm the story. Nolan makes a statement by not telling the story of 5 or 6 characters, instead sharing the story of 400,000 soldiers.
With 10 films under his belt, Nolan has already cemented his legacy as one of the most influential filmmakers of all time. What makes him such a stunning artist is how he is able to bring his stories to life. He is often looked at as the director that brought back the epic films that were made famous during the 50s and 60s.Whether it be The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, Interstellar, or now Dunkirk, Nolan manages to thrill audiences with awe inspiring visuals and mesmerizing Hans Zimmer scores. Moviegoers know that when they purchase a ticket to a Nolan film they can expect to be immersed in the atmospheric storytelling. One critique that has been made about previous films is the poor sound mixing, here however it works very well, often provoking the occasional seat jitter.
All the actors give stoic, urgent, and surreal performances. Tom Hardy is seated in a plane for most of the film but still shows his talent while behind a mask, yet again. Mark Rylance plays a local who takes his boat and sets out for Dunkirk in a desperate attempt to bring home the troops. Kenneth Branagh plays a Commander who leads the evacuation efforts on the beach. Cillian Murphy plays a shell shocked soldier who is rescued by Rylance’s Mr. Dawson. For those One Direction fans wondering about Harry Styles, his character has a good portion of the films dialogue and he handles himself very well, delivering a raw performance in which his natural presence can be felt.
With Dunkirk we see the many strengths of Nolan, the scope and scale of the film helps to magnify the daunting story. Dunkirk is the first war film since Saving Private Ryan to establish stakes and urgency of this magnitude. With an already impressive resume, it’s hard to declare this his best work to date, it’s pretty close though. Go see Dunkirk in the biggest and loudest theater possible, it will be worth the price of admission.