The dark night of World War II
Dunkirk is directed, co-produced, and written by Christopher Nolan and stars Fionn Whitehead, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hardy.
Just when you think Mel Gibson and Andrew Garfield had delivered the best World War II film since Saving Private Ryan with last year's Hacksaw Ridge, here comes mighty challenger Dunkirk from Christopher Nolan, one of only a handful of directors alive today whose very name is accompanied by Hallelujah chants and the happy tears of movie fans everywhere. This occasion is extra special because Dunkirk is Nolan's first wide release film with a historical, fact-based story. The general consensus is that not only is Dunkirk one of the best war films ever; it is Nolan's best film to date. I am not one to give in to this contagious chatter, however, largely because I sat there watching the film and kept telling myself, "I should be amazed by this. But I'm not." How could I not love this? It's freaking Christopher Nolan! And it's freaking Dunkirk; a "colossal military disaster" as Winston Churchill once put it. Now by no means is the film a disaster. I think Christopher Nolan on his absolute worst day of directing could still dish out a decent film. Dunkirk is a finely tuned war film that gets it exactly right when it comes to conveying to us the magnitude of what went down on the beaches of Dunkirk in late May and early June of 1940. That doesn't mean it's a perfect film, though I sure wish I could say it's damn near perfect.
The story is told in a non-linear narrative which is nothing new for Nolan who has a lengthy track record of not telling us a story in a typical, linear format. We have three story lines given to us. The first, entitled The Mole, follows young British private Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) who escapes fire from German troops and ends up on the beaches of Dunkirk, hoping to board an evacuation ship to get home. The second story line, called The Sea, focuses on mariner Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) who take their boat out towards France to assist the Royal Navy in the evacuation effort. They encounter a shell-shocked soldier who begs Mr. Dawson not to take him back towards France. The third and final story line, entitled The Air, concerns three pilots providing air support to the soldiers waiting on the beaches at Dunkirk. The pilots come across several Luftwaffe planes during their efforts to protect the trapped soldiers.
- Right from the get-go, Nolan places us squarely in the middle of the mayhem, and it doesn't let up for a single second from first frame to last frame. Constantly, there are moments in which the Allied soldiers come under German fire, whether it's on the beaches or on one of the evacuation boats. Nolan makes a deliberate effort to minimize the dialogue as much as possible, wanting us to fully endure the intensity and chaos that unfolds without getting bogged down in distracting conversations. To achieve this goal, Dunkirk makes itself as visually arresting as can be, with Nolan temporarily bringing 70mm back from the dead, which I've heard is the best way to view the film. However you decide to view the film, the cinematography is gorgeous and well-worth whatever extra few dollars you might have to pay to see the film in IMAX or XD.
- Dunkirk is one of those "experience" films which tries to win you over by emphasizing the intense nature of its subject material and displaying that intensity in as visually striking and traumatizing of a fashion as possible. As ambitious as the film is, it is lacking a solid human core. There isn't much of anything when it comes to character exploration and development, which is the main downside of the lack of dialogue. The most I could say about a large portion of the characters is they are soldiers who are trying to survive in any way they can. I also found it strange how many of the characters are nearly indistinguishable. Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, and Cillian Murphy are all sporting the same messy, black hairdo and basic, frightened facial expressions that you might begin to forget who is where. It's also disappointing that the film features a worthy name like Tom Hardy who plays one of the pilots named Farrier. He speaks about 10 lines during the entire film and isn't given much else to do other than fly around and shoot German planes.
At just 107 minutes, Dunkirk is one of Nolan's surprisingly shorter films. Almost every one of those 107 minutes focuses on the brutal experience that was the Dunkirk evacuation. The intensity and visual spectacle is definitely there, though it's hard to find emotional stimulation from the intensity when there's barely anything to say about the soldiers who are in the heat of the action. In the end, I did like Dunkirk, but I was unhappy that I couldn't come away feeling that it was the masterful war epic that it was built up to be. By average film standards, Dunkirk is easily one of 2017's better films. By Nolan standards, however, it is largely underwhelming.
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