Dunkirk (2017, USA, UK, France, d. Christopher Nolan, 106 minutes)
I feel as though I should begin this review with a bit of a warning. My personal favorite film of all time is The Dark Knight and to me, Christopher Nolan is not only my favorite filmmaker, but in my opinion, the best filmmaker alive. Dunkirk solidifies that statement even more.
With a history of experimenting with the limits of cinema, Christopher Nolan pushes himself even further with, Dunkirk, a masterpiece of cinema that solidifies him as one of cinemas finest directors.
Told during the evacuation of 400,000 Allied soldiers in the French port city of Dunkirk, we see the story unfold from three different perspectives; the land, the sea and the air.
On land, we find a young soldier (Fionn Whitehead) who will do anything to catch a boat ride home, even if it means endangering fellow soldiers (One Direction’s Harry Styles, in a very fine performance, and Damien Bonnard).
On the sea, we find a British captain (Oscar-winner Mark Rylance) along with his son and his friend (Tom Glynn-Carney and Barry Keoghan) who take their small yacht out to join a civilian fleet in an attempt to rescue the stranded soldiers, but on their way, pick up a PTSD-ridden solider (Cillian Murphy) who refuses to go back to the shores of Dunkirk.
In the air, two air force pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) find themselves fending off against multiple enemy aircrafts, all while defending Allied ships and keeping track of their fuel after one of their gas gauges is shot out.
Running at a very lean 106 minutes, Dunkirk is a film that begins right in the middle of the action. You’re not given much backstory, just the basic idea of the situation and BOOM you’re placed dead center in the middle of it.
Director Christopher Nolan takes a Hitchcockian approach to the story, relying on suspense more so than action or carnage and keeping everything to a minimum, despite it’s grand scale. The characters speak very little dialogue, we get zero exposition and pacing so fast, you hardly ever get a chance to catch your breath. It all feels very grounded, despite being one of the most epic films ever put to screen. It’s Nolan’s direction that makes this one of the most gripping and nerve-shattering films I’ve ever seen. Countless moments had me clutching my seat with a lump in my throat, just by the sheer terror of the sound of an incoming enemy plane whizzing by. Part of the terror comes from the fact that we’re never shown the enemy. In fact, they are only referred to as “the enemy”, keeping the story more ambiguous and helping the audience maintain the mindset of the soldiers.
Nolan manages to tell this story in a way that keeps you guessing, even though you’re aware of the outcome. With the interweaving of stories, there is a chance you could get confused if you’re not paying attention. This is a story that demands your full attention and right from the opening shot, you have no choice but to give yourself over to the film. Nolan doesn’t take his audience for granted. He assumes you’re smart enough to follow along and he’s correct. Nolan is the only filmmaker around who continuously challenges audiences without ever calling attention to it.
Beautifully realized by Nolan and DP Hoyte Van Hoytema, Dunkirk was shot on 65mm and IMAX cameras and there’s never a dull image on screen. From the sweeping aerial shots of the sea, (no green screen, mind you) to the nail-biting dogfights and even the claustrophobia-inducing moments inside a sinking ship, you’re always placed in the middle of the action. I can proudly say, you’ve never seen sequences this real before. The only proper way to see this film is on IMAX.
Dunkirk is also one of the best scored films in recent years. The music here, by Hans Zimmer, is as memorable as any of the beautiful shots in the film. The use of a ticking pocket watch (owned by none other than Christopher Nolan) makes for an effective device of setting tension. What helps make the film so terrifying and suspenseful is the score. It’s loud when it needs to be, it’s quiet when it needs to be and it serves as a backbone to the film.
Some have criticized the film for having no characters, but I disagree. This isn’t a film about characters, necessarily, but about the survival of the men who are stuck on the beach and the men defending it. We never get a scene where characters sit around and discuss their backstories, but we see who these characters are based on how they act in their current situation. We may not know most of their names, but with subtle hints and clues, we understand who these men are.
Dunkirk is film that electrifies on all senses. With a great ensemble cast, career-best work from composer Hans Zimmer, impeccable cinematography and filmmaking of the highest-possible order, this is a must-see for any film fan out there. Dunkirk is simply the best film of the year.