In recent years, Hollywood has attempted to capture the horrors of war in realistic and visceral ways. Saving Private Ryan’s harrowing opening sequence is possibly the closest mainstream film making has come to achieving this. We see hundreds of soldiers desperately trying to survive hails of bullets. That scene left a lasting impression on audiences that is still held in high regard today.
Now imagine an entire film that captures that same desperation. Dunkirk does just that. It’s more than a film; it’s an experience that literally drops you into a mad dash for survival. Christopher Nolan has created a beautifully frightening masterpiece that combines every facet of film making in an amazing way. There are some minor flaws, but this is one of the best films of the year.
The Horrors of War
Dunkirk presents the infamous World War II evacuation in three locales. On land, young British soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and his comrades desperately try to get aboard any ship heading home. At sea, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and young friend George (Barry Keoghan) sail in one of several civilian ships racing to Dunkirk to rescue the British Army. Finally, RAF pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) try to cover the retreat in a tense fight with the Luftwaffe in the air.
The film is a technical triumph, from its cinematography to its sound design. First of all, it is a visual experience where the main characters’ survival is paramount. The German army that surrounds them is virtually unseen, acting like a malevolent force that is slowly closing in. The politics of the war, or why they fight are never brought up. These men only care about the problem in front of them.
The characters never talk about sweethearts at home, faith or greater goods. We rarely hear names. This is a nightmare situation for these men and small talk is a cliche they never deal with. Dialogue is at a minimum, almost like a silent film. Instead, we see them desperately try to survive.
Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema manage to capture the horrors these men face in a variety of ways. They show us beautiful yet desolate vistas on land and sea, suggesting that these men are in some sort of purgatory. But they also nearly drown us along side the poor souls trapped in the sinking ships at sea. This is as close as an audience can get to facing the horrors of a desperate situation.
The soundtrack adds to the tension. Hans Zimmer’s score utilizes a ticking clock throughout the film that adds to the anxiety. You will find yourself shrinking into your seat as the characters race that clock. The sound design is amazing, especially if you see the film in IMAX. In the air, the buzz of the Spitfire’s engines grab your chest and shakes you, literally putting you in the cockpit alongside those pilots. Bullets hit with startling impacting, striking out of nowhere to snatch lives away.
The performances are deceptively simple. The characters don’t express their fear in long monologues…we see it on their faces. This is not an easy thing for any actor to do, and all of the actors in Dunkirk excel at visual storytelling. Fionn Whitehead stands out with a subtle desperation. He never goes over the top, as his drive to survive is portrayed as a singular quest he is determined to complete. At the same time, he never loses his humanity despite coming very close to doing so.
The rest of the cast is great as well. For those of you wondering, singer Harry Styles is actually very good as another desperate soldier. The big name actors never call undue attention to themselves, maintaining the quiet desperation of the film. Kenneth Branagh brings a regal but human aura to Commander Bolton, the officer in charge of the evacuation. Mark Rylance is quietly dignified as Mr. Dawson. And Tom Hardy once again does so much with so little as pilot Farrier. Behind a mask for most of the film, he manages to show so much with just his eyes.
Most importantly, Dunkirk manages to maintain hope in the face of the hardship. The opening titles say that the soldiers are waiting for a miracle, and that hope manages to punch through the almost unrelenting somber tone. However, that is part of the film’s problems.
The scenes on Mr. Dawson’s small boat are strong, especially when the characters pick up Cillian Murphy‘s shell shocked soldier. But the mostly silent approach that works for the soldiers on the beach and air doesn’t necessarily work in these sequences. The younger men on the boat with Dawson could use some more development, especially since their plot leads to one of the many happy endings of the film.
Those of you familiar with the real events at Dunkirk know what really happens on that beach, so the upbeat ending does make sense. But it does lead to some unbelievable moments that stand in stark contrast to the rest of the film. Mr. Dawson’s plot conclusion is just one example.
As stated above, Hardy is great as Farrier, but his abilities as a pilot become a little unbelievable. Granted, Hardy usually plays larger than life characters and Farrier feels like a tribute to the Royal Air Force. In a film grounded in reality, some of his exploits stand out a little too much.
This last criticism is more of a warning. This is truly a great film, but it’s not for everyone. The mostly visual storytelling and relentless look at warfare will turn some off. I would say go and see this film as soon as possible, but it may not be for everyone, especially if you’re simply looking for a fun time at the theater.
Nolan At His Finest
Dunkirk is an amazing technical achievement and I would go so far as to say it’s one of the best war films ever made. If you are any kind of cinephile, this is a film that must be experience on the biggest screen you can find with the best sound system available. It is a complete theatrical experience and it should not be missed.
SCORE: 9.5 OUT OF 10