Christopher Nolan goes to war in a heart-pounding, historical drama about victory in the jaws of defeat
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murpy
In May of 1940, the increasingly dominant Nazi military closed in on Allied forces (minus America, given the early date) and pushed them to the seaside town of Dunkirk, France. With their backs to the sea and their defenses dwindling, the British army tried to organize an evacuation. But they were under constant attack from land, sea and air. Despite impossible odds and few resources, the badly battered Allied forces ended up getting nearly 400,000 soldiers off that beach—a defeat, but a pivotal turning point that solidified English resolve in the early days of the Second World War. That harrowing incident would seem like oddly down-to-earth inspiration for filmmaker Christopher Nolan (Interstellar, Inception, The Prestige, The Dark Knight trilogy). But it’s a path that iconic director Steven Spielberg has taken, tacking away from genre blockbusters to epic historical dramas. And the result—the almost unbearably tense, white-knuckle war drama Dunkirk—speaks for itself, ranking as the best war movie since Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and the finest film of Nolan’s already impressive career.
Dunkirk starts with an inspired screenplay that is epic in its intimacy. Rather than focus on the big picture—giant battle scenes, generals talking strategy, the motivation of opposing forces—
The story is actually split into three narratives. The first takes place one week before the evacuation on the beach in Dunkirk. The second takes place 24 hours before the evacuation back in England. The third takes place one hour before the evacuation in the skies above the English Channel. In a fascinating storytelling move, Nolan chooses to tell all these stories at once, intercutting them, despite the fact that they take place in different time periods.
In the first story (one week before), we concentrate on Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead), a dazed soldier who stumbles onto the beach at Dunkirk hoping to escape the slaughter. Unfortunately, he’s met with thousands of Englishmen in a similar boat (minus the boat). He eventually hooks up with a couple other young men, equally desperate to get home (including, yes, singer Harry Styles). But how? The British Navy can’t get destroyers into the shallow bay, and the military brass are holding back all their other resources for what is looking like a Nazi invasion of England.
In the second story (one day before), a quietly patriotic English sailor named Mr. Dawson (the excellent Mark Rylance from Bridge of Spies) is drafted as part of the “civilian fleet,” a ragtag collection of private yachts, sailboats, fishing trawlers, etc. conscripted to help evacuate the soldiers over in Dunkirk. As they make their way across the choppy Channel, Dawson and his tiny crew rescue a single, shell-shocked British officer (Cillian Murphy) who has no intention of returning to the bloody beaches of Dunkirk.
In the third story (one hour before), a dutiful Royal Air Force pilot (Tom Hardy) flies a crucial, last-minute mission in the skies above Dunkirk—despite the fact that his fuel tanks are running dangerously low.
What’s so fascinating about Nolan’s time-crunching story structure is that we don’t know how the beginning of the film ends, we don’t know how the middle of the film ends, and we don’t know how the end of the film ends—because they’re all happening at the same time. As the narrative progresses, of course, the first story starts to crash into the second, and the second eventually crashes into the third, providing a denouement for all three at once. In the meantime, however, the tension is almost unbearable. It’s doubtful there are 60 seconds of downtime in this propulsive 106-minute film in which the threat of death is not imminent. Add to that Hans Zimmer’s assaultive, Oscar-worthy score—built largely around the sound of the late-arriving pilot’s ticking wristwatch—and you’ve got a positively nerve-shredding experience.
The camerawork, not to mention the visceral sound design and sound editing (there’s two more guaranteed Oscars right there), conspire to place viewers in the thick of the action. You can feel the bullets as they pockmark walls around the soldiers, you can sense the rickety metal vibration of the airplane cockpits as they slice the air above Dunkirk. Nolan’s film was shot on a densely, vibrantly textured 70mm film stock, and you owe it to yourself to see this film in the best format (sound and visual) possible.
Despite the heart-pounding intensity of the experience, and the overall specter of death, Nolan somehow manages to find a thrillingly inspiring ending upon which to land (literally). Part of that is due to the inspiring words of one Winston Churchill (you’ll recognize them when you hear them)—and part is due to the efforts of Tom Hardy’s never-say-die flyboy, who represents the stoic, everyday loyalty, dedication and heroism that turn even brutal defeats into heart-swelling victories. Let’s chalk this one up as a team effort. Thanks to all involved—from director to actors to composer to sound people—Dunkirk is the first certified masterpiece of 2017.