DUNKIRK

I’ve always found Christopher Nolan the director to be much stronger than Christopher Nolan the screenwriter. The man has a wonderful vision that he expertly brings to the big screen with an immense level of technical craft, but when it comes to actually executing the story the film is trying to tell, it always feels like there’s something missing. Where he succeeds in spectacle and eliciting emotion through visuals and audio, he falters in creating fully fledged characters that do more than serve their purposes to the plot and spout a lot of exposition. With his new film Dunkirk, Nolan breaks his own mold and tries something a bit different, with characters keeping their mouths shut and the audiences instead living through their experiences.

Dunkirk takes place during the Dunkirk evacuation in World War II, told from three different perspectives (land, sea, and air) over their own time periods (one week, one day, and one hour, respectively). On land, British Army privates Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) attempt to escape the beaches of Dunkirk in France, as they try to survive constant attacks from the German Air Force and Navy. On sea, civilian Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his teenage son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and his friend George (Barry Keoghan) join the British Navy across the English channel to rescue the stranded soldiers. In the air, Royal Air Force pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) and his team fly to the evacuation point to assist the escaping troops. All of these actions lead to the Miracle of Dunkirk.

One of the things Christopher Nolan has made himself known for ever since The Dark Knight are his incredibly long runtimes. He loves big ideas with lots of spectacle, all while the characters discuss their ethics and moral dilemmas surrounding them. There’s no respite to be found in Dunkirk. We’re dropped right into the action in the opening scene, with young British soldiers running from gunfire through the city streets and it never lets up from there. It’s a constant race against time and fight against death for every character, where even Hans Zimmer’s score (or the work of one of his pupils, who knows these days) is a ticking clock constantly keeping you on edge. Along with the soldiers, you never feel safe, as quiet scenes will suddenly be interrupted by a hail of gunfire.

Nolan spends no time on fluff here, with each scene constantly moving the plot forward in some way. There’s very little dialogue, where characters only speak when needed and their actions really say more than enough. As the film goes on, you can see the toll this event is taking on all of our characters, especially for our two young soldiers on the beach as their minds slowly get lost. You of course expect great performances from Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and Mark Rylance, but our newcomers (featuring Harry Styles of 1 Direction fame) playing the young soldiers are fantastic, too. Everybody perfectly embodies the fear and paranoia one would feel in the situation. They feel logical in their actions and motivations, to where people will do anything they can to survive, but also help others out. The different perspectives were a great representation of how war is fought by everybody doing their own little part and sometimes the man who saves your life is one you’ll never meet. Each perspective has its own little story going on, which helped provide a lot of different aspects to examine warfare from, while keeping each aspect distinct and interesting.

This method of telling the story does occasionally get confusing, as it constantly cuts back and forth from the different points of view, usually taking place at a completely different time. I’ve always found the editing to be the weakest aspect of Nolan’s films, and his go-to editor Lee Smith delivers his standard fare of abrupt cuts, nonsensical transitions, and unnecessary cutaways to overacting extras. His editing doesn’t help the story format at all, especially with the bizarrely edited last scene that left me more baffled than emotional. I couldn’t help but thinking this way of telling the story lessened some of the emotional impact, especially when everything was resolving. It felt odd to have the resolution arrive in one story, only for us to cut back to action in the next scene. I was invested in the characters and themes of their stories, but didn’t feel fully emotionally satisfied at the end. Most of my emotions came from the fact that something this incredible happened in the first place. The way the story is told works for the most part, though, providing an incredibly visceral warfare experience from all sides, which is exactly what Nolan was going for. It’s nice to have him lean off the endless exposition for once.

Nolan proves that you don’t need a whole bunch of blood and gore in order to provide an intense war film. A lot of the horrors of war are captured by how the characters perceive it and how they handle it. You don’t need people trying to keep their guts from falling out when you actually feel like you’re taking cover on the beach from shrieking German planes, or trying to escape a sinking ship. The sound design is appropriately deafening, with every gunshot and explosion ringing all throughout the theater. You get the true WWII experience, tinnitus and all! It’s just too bad the dialogue was so poorly mixed, as you could hardly understand what the characters were saying amidst all of the chaos. One could argue that more accurately represents the warfare experience, but I’d still like to know what our characters are saying.

If you can, check this film out in IMAX (especially in 70mm film), where you can really take in the glorious picture and sound. The massive aspect ratio allowed for some incredibly gorgeous landscape shots of huddled soldiers along the beach with dead brethren around them, or planes that look like tiny specs against the massive sky. There are moments of aspect ratio changes, but it’s never too distracting as Nolan reserves it for certain scenes, never detracting from the overall spectacle. The action is beautifully shot and captured with great intensity, where when it’s coupled with the incredible sound, you’re always right in the thick of it with the characters. It’s an absolute masterwork on a technical level.

Dunkirk is a very satisfying film from Christopher Nolan, both as a screenwriter and director, because it feels like he’s truly taken his next step in evolving as a filmmaker. While the unique format of the story did sometimes confuse and detract from the emotional investment, he still did a great job at building characters through minimal dialogue and pretty much entirely through their actions. He also did what he did best, in delivering some of the best spectacle to experience on the big screen in years, with glorious picture, sound, and effects. He’s a lot like James Cameron. He may be flawed, but his films are always wonders to behold.

8.5/10

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