‘Dunkirk’ is not a typical war movie.
There are no brothers in arms, no flashbacks to simpler times and pretty wives and girlfriends left behind, no old men in situation rooms pontificating about politics or helping with exposition. There’s no talk of Hitler, or Germans or battlefields or trauma or mothers. In fact, there’s hardly any talk at all, or, for that matter, even any characters in the traditional sense.
But don’t be mistaken: Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is a stone cold masterpiece.
It’s a stunningly immersive survival film told in 106 thrillingly realized minutes. Nolan puts the viewer right in the action whether it’s on the beach with 400,000 men queued up and waiting for a rescue that may never come, on the waters of the English Channel in the little civilian ship headed into hostile waters with only an aging man and two teenage boys aboard, or in the air above in the two lone Spitfires that are quickly running out of fuel.
I’ve never experienced anything quite like “Dunkirk’s” intoxicating immediacy. The screen and images envelope you with urgency, dread and moments of breathtaking beauty and grace as you wait with the soldiers, as the title card at the beginning says, for deliverance.
The story begins on the ground, with a young soldier, Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead) wandering the deserted streets of Dunkirk looking for water and a place to relieve himself. Propaganda flyers float down to the ground reminding the soldiers of something they’re already well aware of — that they’re surrounded. “Surrender + Survive!” the flyers read as Hans Zimmer’s gently ominous score plays in the background telling us that while it may be calm for a moment, it is not safe. A deafening gunshot breaks the silence, and, fair warning, your racing heart will not stop for quite some time.
Nolan follows Tommy back to the beach where soldiers stand in long lines that stretch to the water, where no boats approach. His part is nearly silent, his motivations unknown. They are all haunted shells, stripped of meaningful weapons and a military purpose. He and the rest just know they need to get off the beach at any cost.
We accompany Tommy as he tries to achieve that objective which eludes him with almost comic frequency. He’s the unluckiest lucky fellow out there.
Occasionally we get the sobering perspective of the higher ups, compliments of the great Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton.
In the air there are the two Spitfire pilots, Farrier (played by Tom Hardy, whose face is once again largely obscured but who can act circles around many of his contemporaries even with just the use of his eyes and eyebrows) and Collins (Jack Lowden). They get to be the lofty, classical heroes of war films past as they shoot down the enemy. Hardly has a film ever made you feel as in the moment as this.
And on the sea, the three civilians, Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance), Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and George (Barry Keoghan) who, like so many during the Dunkirk evacuation, took it upon themselves to captain their own small vessel and journey into war dressed in their seaside knits and armed only with lifejackets and blankets to help save their country’s stranded men. They’re the beating heart of film, especially when pitted against a shell shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) who is determined to stop them from going back to Dunkirk.
These narratives intertwine and loop back and repeat from different vantage points with stunning effectiveness — never seeming redundant or dull. Nolan finds suspense at every angle, and ramps up the tension with the help of Zimmer’s ticking score. While, there might not be character arcs to speak of, the performances are first-rate nonetheless (even pop star Harry Styles, who might just have another viable career option).
Nolan continues to be unparalleled in Hollywood — working on a scope that few are able to. As many filmmakers experiment with the small screen, Nolan has only gone bigger and bolder with his commitment to film and IMAX. What a case “Dunkirk” is for the movie theater. Not only that, “Dunkirk” is far and away the best film of the year, and Nolan’s finest too.
See it big and then see it again.
“Dunkirk,” a Warner Bros Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “for intense war experience and some language.” Running time: 106 minutes. Four stars out of four.
History — some of it intensely personal — leant heavily on Christopher Nolan when he was making his wartime epic “Dunkirk”, which rolls out in cinemas across the world from Wednesday.
The English-born director of the “Batman” movies had long dreamt of tackling the story of how a kind of victory was pulled from Britain’s worst defeat of World War II.
With the cream of the British army trapped by a lightning German advance into northern France in May 1940, the country’s new leader Winston Churchill was told they would be lucky to get 30,000 men out alive.
But in nine days more than 10 times that number of British, French and Canadian troops were evacuated in what became known as the “Miracle of Dunkirk”.
Many were plucked from the beaches by a flotilla of “little ships” crewed by civilians who answered the call to cross the Channel.
Their courage came home to Nolan and his wife producer Emma Thomas when they crossed the same stretch of water in a small boat in what he described as “one of the most difficult and frankly dangerous experiences of my life.”
“It drove home to us how heroic this was,” Thomas told AFP. “And no one was shooting or dropping bombs on us.”
“I grew up in a household where the war was very important,” Nolan added.
“My grandfather (Francis Thomas Nolan) was a navigator on a Lancaster bomber and he died near here in 1944. While we were shooting the film I took the children to see his grave. Seeing my own grandfather and the rest of his crew in a communal grave, you realise the concept of entertainment and war is a very tricky thing.”
Which is why “Dunkirk” — despite its relentless high-octane action scenes — is not “really a war film”, he said.
Instead Nolan wanted to turn it into a “survival story… and to create a different feeling and rhythm to what people have ever seen or experienced before in a cinema.”
“The leads at the heart of the film are kids,” he told AFP, including the pop star Harry Styles of One Direction fame.
“You are not expecting them to take on the German army. When you see the young soldier played by Fionn Whitehead at the beginning (fleeing German fire) you just want this guy to be OK. You don’t have a problem with him dropping his rifle and running. Because that is what you would have done.”
For a while Nolan — who is known for his technical and narrative daring — toyed with even making “Dunkirk” “almost as a silent film”, driven by “pictures and sound effects rather than dialogue.
“I was looking for ecstatic truth of what happened” to the hundreds of thousands of men left stranded like sitting ducks on the beach.
“I was trying to make pure cinema,” he said, using huge IMAX cameras and shooting with 70mm film — twice the size of the usual format — to make the “experience overwhelmingly real”.
Rather than relying on special effects, Nolan shot on, above and off the very beaches where the evacuation took place with real World War II planes and warships.
Some of the original “little ships” which picked the soldiers up were also pressed back into service.
The gargantuan production starring Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance even involved rebuilding the one kilometre-long (1,093-yard) breakwater called The Mole from which thousands of troops were taken onto larger ships.
“I think we had the largest marine unit ever used in a film,” Nolan added. “At one point we had 60-plus boats in the water,” including three former minesweepers, a destroyer and a hospital ship.
Storms played havoc with the “arduous” shoot, ripping chunks out of The Mole. But Nolan said they also gave him “incredible images that you couldn’t plan or fake.”
And then as filming reached its climax last year came the Brexit bombshell. Suddenly the prospect of another ignominious retreat from Europe gave the film an unexpected and unwanted politician resonance.
It was shocking.
Warner Bros. had played all the right notes with “Inception.” A summer blockbuster that quickly took on a prestige sheen, Christopher Nolan’s mind-warping actioner was easily one of the year’s best films. With overwhelming critical, popular and industry approval, it was instantly set on a crash-course for a best picture Oscar nomination.
A director bid, meanwhile, seemed a foregone conclusion, particularly in the wake of Nolan’s 2008 “The Dark Knight,” which came up short in the major categories and, in part, led to the film Academy’s decision to expand the best picture field to better accommodate movies of its ilk. But “Inception” was a step above in this regard, bravura filmmaking, the kind of entertainment directors only dream of conjuring (no pun intended). Nolan was secure.
Then: the nominations. Not only was Nolan passed over for directing, but somehow, a film built on its structure and editorial prowess was ignored by the film editors branch. A best picture nomination and, eventually, four Oscars — for cinematography, sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects — frankly felt like cold comfort. What happened?
We’ll avoid a seven-years-later postmortem, but terms like “genre bias” were certainly thrown around at the time. And it’s always possible that perceived shoo-ins (Ben Affleck for “Argo,” Ridley Scott for “The Martian,” etc.) miss the cut when voters assume they’re safe and spread their votes elsewhere. Whatever the case may be, Nolan — largely considered one of our great contemporary filmmakers — remained, and remains, without an Oscar nomination for directing.
That alone would be enough of a framework on which to hang a campaign for his latest film, “Dunkirk” — that is, if it didn’t do such a phenomenal job of making that case on its own.
The film, a riveting account of the defense and evacuation of British and Allied forces on the shores of Dunkirk, France during the Second World War, might well be Nolan’s masterpiece. At a swift 106 minutes, it’s his leanest, most driven film to date, as well as the strongest case he’s made yet for utilizing the Imax format. But, as a trio of stories taking place within separate timelines that cascade together in a feat of structural bravado few would even conceive for a film like this, let alone attempt, “Dunkirk” also stands as one of the director’s most fascinating experiments with time so far.
Nolan has long been interested in this concept and how it impacts the structure of his work, from the backwards trajectory of “Memento” to the magic-trick paradigm of “The Prestige” to the temporally tiered experience of “Inception.” And whether the film worked for you or not, “Interstellar” took these ideas to bold thematic heights. Nolan says as much with how he shapes his films as he does with anything else.
I belabor all of that only to say that if editor Lee Smith doesn’t finally receive Oscar recognition, I’ll need to eat my hat. And if Nolan doesn’t finally land a notice from his filmmaker colleagues in the Academy’s directors branch, something is…amiss.
His work with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, meanwhile — who stepped in for longtime regular Wally Pfister beginning with “Interstellar” — hits a new level with the sense of immersion going on here. He, too, is due for a first nomination, after already making fine cases with films like “Let the Right One In,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “Her.”
Aurally speaking, though hindered somewhat in Imax by the company’s proprietary sound system (a matter of preference, perhaps), the sound design of the film is crucial to the experience. Nominations for sound editing and mixing are on the table and could be easy wins; prestige war films always fare well in these categories. Also possible for a nomination is Hans Zimmer’s original score. Laced with a ticking-clock motif and an aggressive urgency of strings, it’s incredibly effective at propelling the film forward at every stretch. Zimmer has twice been recognized by the Academy for his Nolan collaborations, for “Inception” and “Interstellar.”
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On the acting side, “Dunkirk” is a true ensemble film, and for stretches, it plays out like a silent movie. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for standouts as the cast is called upon to serve as a sort of phalanx for Nolan’s vision. That said, if the actors branch seizes on anyone in particular, it will be Oscar winner Mark Rylance (“Bridge of Spies”). As an English civilian crossing the channel to assist in the rescue effort, he brings a sense of calm and warmth to the proceedings. There are no explosive “Oscar clip” moments, though one fleeting instance of clenched emotional determination may leave your mouth agape. His serenity is just singular in an otherwise tension-filled experience. Fionn Whitehead makes a solid anchor as an English soldier trying desperately to evacuate, and Tom Hardy is enigmatic as an unflappable fighter pilot, a sort of guardian angel in the skies. But Rylance adds something else entirely.
The back end of this summer has brought a number of delights, from the personal grace notes of “The Big Sick” to the metaphysical richness of “A Ghost Story” to the elegiac flourishes of “War for the Planet of the Apes.” But — and due respect to those films and deserving early-year entries such as “Get Out” — “Dunkirk” arrives as the first slam-dunk Oscar contender of 2017. It’s one of the great entries in a well-worn genre that has never, ever seen anything quite like it. (Agencies)
By Lindsey Bahr