It may be a little presumptuous of me to make this claim, especially of a director who has made his name filming incredible practical effects, but Dunkirk may be Christopher Nolan’s most visually impressive film. If there is any CGI here, it’s in the stitching together of two separate scenes or of large crowd shots.
It’s a sign of the clear respect and love that went into this hummer of a war movie. It’s a story that didn’t need to be told, but now that it’s been made, you’re happy it was made well.
The narrative unfolds in a non-linear fashion. This story telling device wasn’t confusing to me but I’ve heard from a few people who took a long time to catch on, dulling their experience. Our three main story lines go as such: a week-long perspective from the boys on the beach, a day-long perspective from a civilian boat captain crossing the channel, and an hour-long perspective from a squad in the Royal Air Force. The audience watches each story unfold and interact with each other over the course of the film.
There are many great things Dunkirk does. They never show the enemy except in the form of fighters, bombers, and torpedoes. This is the enemy 400,000 tired, weak, retreating British soldiers faced: a faceless one. An enemy they could do nothing about, except cower and hide. The one soldier shown firing back gets promptly blown to bits by a bomb.
There is only briefly any mention of backstory. We are thrust into the story, watching our “main character” Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) unceremoniously try to take a shit before Germans start shooting at him. We don’t know where he’s from or what he really thinks beyond abject terror and the desire to do anything to get home. Ditto for every soldier they encounter on the beach. What little background we get, comes from on screen text in the beginning, and a brief mention of Mark Rylance character’s son being killed in the Air Force.
Speaking of Mark Rylance, Dunkirk is filled to the brim with short, brilliant acting. Tom Hardy is forced to act with his eyes yet again, his face being covered by his plane’s breathing apparatus most of the film. Mark Rylance shows again why he’s one of the best supporting actors on the planet, same for Cillian Murphy. Kenneth Branagh is always wonderful and the cast of relative unknowns (barring Harry Styles, but he wasn’t too bad) holds their own extremely well.
The practical effects, as mentioned before, are nothing short of incredible. Those are real ships sinking into the water, and real people jumping into the surf. Nothing is more disconcerting than watching a small space fill up with water. Dunkirk might be rated PG-13 but the adrenaline never stops pumping. The cinematography as always is a masterclass. Nothing may be more beautiful than the shot of a plane landing on the beach at sunset. Or nothing more haunting than a ghostly hand reaching through the murky water, trying desperately to grab a ladder just a few inches away.
Which brings us to the flaws, which are few, but they are there. I’ll remain spoiler free until after the rating in which I will expand upon it a bit more, but I do have some serious reservations with parts of the story. They just make no sense. My other reservation involves the music. It’s very in your face. And I cannot tell if it enhanced my experience of the film. I want and need to watch a version of the film that has no music whatsoever, just sound effects. I have to know if it changes my experience of the film because nothing pulls me out of a historical film faster than a Hans Zimmer “BWAAA” right in my ear.
Regardless, Dunkirk is an epic, ambitious, and incredibly thorough war movie, from one of the best directors of a generation. It’s like Nolan can’t possibly make a bad movie. But he also can’t make a perfect one. That doesn’t mean that Dunkirk isn’t one of the best war films of all time, though. It subverts all the major tropes of a war film. There is no going out in a blaze of glory, just duty and survival. There are no seasoned veterans calmly issuing orders, just panicked, young, scared men who just want to get home. And the citizens who want to get them there.
3.5 out of 4 stars.
P.S. Did our boy Tommy ever get to take that shit? We will never know.
Okay, those story issues. One, I’m super sad the French guy bit the dust. That was a major bummer, but it’s okay. What’s not okay is the boy who dies on the boat. You may remember that Cillian Murphy’s character, in a fit of PTSD panic brought on by Mark Rylance refusing to head back to England and instead going to Dunkirk, shoves the boy who falls into the boat’s hold and hits his head. Two major problems here. The boy dies, and they let Cillian Murphy thinks he lived because he’s a sad, broken man and more stress wouldn’t be good for him or something. And then we learn that HE’S AN ORPHAN BOY. They basically kidnapped an orphan, brought him into a war zone, and he got killed. Manslaughtered. And all they do is just tell the local paper he died a hero because that’s what he wanted or something. What the ever loving fuck? And then they just let Cillian Murphy walk away. Are you kidding?! I know it was an accident, but that guy KILLED AN ORPHAN. He at least needs to be referred to an army psychiatrist. and/or go to jail to make up for his crime. But, nope. Little orphan boy dies a local hero in his town’s paper, beneath the fold.