Christopher Nolan has been quick to correct those who dismiss his latest film as a War Movie. “It’s not a war movie, it’s a survival movie.” Indeed, while it does take place in 1940 during WWII, it’s a story not of battle, but of 400,000 allied soldiers stranded on a beach, surrounded by the enemy, trying to get home. With most of the docks destroyed, an extremely shallow shoreline, and German artillery taking out battleships that got too close, their chances looked grim. There was no way for these men to fight the enemy, only hope for a miracle.
As we’ve seen in Memento, Inception, and Interstellar, Nolan’s obsession with manipulating time is put to use once again in “Dunkirk”. At first, this may seem an odd choice for a movie based on a historical event, but the genius behind it quickly becomes evident. Title cards at the beginning lay out the three arenas the story takes place over. First is “The Mole”, or beachhead, on which the troops were stranded for a week. Second is “The Sea” as we follow a Civilian Captain who takes his private ship across the English channel during the course of a day. Third, we follow a trio of British Fighter Pilots during the hour they spend in “The Air” doing their best to defend the soldiers and civilians below. By using three separate timelines, each running at a different speed, the story is able to focus on the most important events and the climatic events at which they intersect. In print, it sounds confusing but upon viewing it becomes intuitive.
A lot of effort was put into making this film an immersive experience, and here again, it triumphs. Whether we’re quietly making our way through the claustrophobic streets of Dunkirk, throwing our bodies to the sand as a fighter strafes the beach, gasping for air in the belly of a dark ship as it capsizes, or sitting on the wing of a (real) P-51 Mustang as it tries to outmaneuver a German fighter, every moment we feel like we are there. Aiding the truly incredible cinematography is a sound mix that will knock your socks off. More than once, audience members could be seen ducking when unexpected enemy fire would ring out. Tom Hardy plays one of the fighter pilots and even though he once again has his face covered by a mask for the entire movie is actually intelligible! Bolstering the amazing audio and visuals is an impressive score by Hans Zimmer. Incorporating an incessant ticking clock and wailing strings, the score seems to do the impossible by gradually building tension through the entire movie. It never releases its grip on the audience until moments before the credits roll.
It’s hard to find fault with this virtual masterpiece. Some have tried comparing it to “Saving Private Ryan”, but they shouldn’t be compared. Both exist as incredible films but work in vastly different narrative styles. Other’s have negatively commented on the lack of dialog in “Dunkirk”, but often, more can be said from silence than lengthy monologs of exposition. When the characters in this film do talk, it’s because they have something important to say.
Desperation to survive breeds both cowards and heroes. Few films portray that as powerfully as “Dunkirk”.
NOTE: This is a cinematic event that is deserved to see in the best format possible.
If you plan on seeing it at the theatre, try to find a theatre in this order:
1: IMAX presenting in 70mm Film (rare)
2: IMAX Digital on full-size screen
3: IMAX Digital
4: “Regular” Cinema showing 70mm film
5: Anything screening with Dolby Atmos sound