Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a mammoth sized production, employing thousands of extras, actual ships, planes and pretty much everything you see on screen is au naturel. Well, everything they could do realistically but safely, too and at its core, Dunkirk is a monumentally and technically excellent film. It is taut, exciting, sad, poignant and all of the elements that make a film like Dunkirk work. There are great scenes of heroism, selfless bravery featuring what made the allied soldiers stand out as much as the brave Americans who fought along side them, as well. Yes, there is a great deal of Dunkirk that I loved, but the problems I had with this film were enough to keep this film from being great.
Dunkirk tells the story of the disastrous campaign in which British, French, Polish, Canadian, Belgian and troops from the Netherlands, as well end up stranded on a beach. Only a few miles from England and relative safety, it might as well have been thousands of miles away. It would not have made a difference. Germany has them surrounded. By land, sea and air, the Nazis, led by Gerd von Rundstedt pounded the allied troops mercilessly. Strafing the beaches, torpedoing ships (even hospital ships), raining artillery down on them and snipers picking them off as best they could. The allied troops were pinned down with nowhere to run or hide.
There is a constant sense of dread in Nolan’s film and it starts right out of the gate, gripping. I was in the safety of the theater so I cannot even begin to imagine what it was like to be in that situation, for real. The film is not about any one character. It is about the situation and the people as a whole. Yes, there are certain characters we get to know, but not much. Told from a grunt’s point of view named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), an RAF pilot named Farrier (Tom Hardy who is back to having his face covered and about ten lines of dialogue) and an Admiral, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) who can only watch like the other 400,000 stranded men as they are picked off by the bushel. The Allies lost almost 70,000 soldiers in total.
The film is very choppy in the editing department and this was my biggest problem with the film. Editor Lee Smith and Christopher Nolan have clearly made a conscious decision to pivot from one area of the evacuation to the next, sometimes right in the middle of scenes of real peril for the characters. I kind of understand what they were going for, I guess. Once again this was not about one man. It was about a quest of all to just to survive. So, in that sense, Nolan has taken a gamble and veered away from the standard, linear lines of story-telling. For the most part, he succeeds as I was able to look past an odd choice of story-telling.This film is beautifully shot, as well. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema lenses the beauty of the location wonderfully but also is able to capture the brutality of war. Nothing is glossed over, despite the PG-13 rating. He is able to divide the beauty and the horror very distinctively.
Composer Hans Zimmer’s score has been called “bombastic” by some critics for this film. Yes, you could call it that. But, it is excellent at ratcheting up the sense of time that is running out. Nolan and Zimmer actually used an old watch of Nolan’s that had a distinctively loud ticking sound. Nolan recorded it, sent it to Zimmer and said, “Let’s find a way to use this.” It has been put to good use both in the fantastic trailers and the film. Aside from that element, Zimmer’s score is poundingly exhausting in a good way. Zimmer has scored almost every one of Christopher Nolan’s films and it is obvious, they know what each other is thinking within the film’s structure.
The cast is excellent for what roles they have. There is not a single main character. As I mentioned Fionn Whitehead could be considered one of the “leads”. I have not seen him in anything but here he is able to convey much with his body and facial motions with a quiet, scared and innocent sense of being. Mark Rylance (last seen in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies and HEARD in Spielberg’s BFG) is terrific as a veteran who understands war especially from the soldier’s point of view. He among hundreds of other Britains were called up to use their own personal boats to help evacuations from Dunkirk at great risk. Rylance’s Mr. Dawson is always calm, knowledgeable and in control of the situation and he is a joy to watch.
Kenneth Branagh has a quiet nobility about him as Commander Bolton. He brings a certain amount of dignity to the film as a man who has seen a lot in his life as a seaman for his country but even this tests his nerves. In one scene as a German plane dives right towards the dock in which Bolton is standing, he makes no moves to run or jump into the water. He seems to be at peace with himself if this is going to be it for him. Branagh is also an absolute treat to watch, even in small roles like this. There are some great actors in Dunkirk that do a lot with the little material they are given.
Dunkirk has a run-time of one hour and forty-six minutes and this was my other beef with the film. This, if I am not mistaken is one of Nolan’s shortest films. My question is why? A battle that lasted eight days, involved over a million troops on both sides, ending up with casualties on both sides of almost eighty thousand troops and all we get is one hour and forty-six minutes? If any film begged for a three hour run time it is Dunkirk. The truth is what Nolan has created in Dunkirk is gripping, terrifying and is quite ambitious in his direction technique. He knows what he is doing, but the truth is Dunkirk is too short. I could have sat through a three-hour film and come away just as terrified and awed.
Despite the flaws Dunkirk has, it still is a good film and worth venturing out to see. There is a proud sense of patriotism that this film has which I found refreshing and it is, in fact, dedicated to the brave soldiers of Dunkirk. This is a fitting tribute to those who lived and died there. One more note, I saw Dunkirk on the IMAX screen but the truth is that the standard version is every bit as good as the IMAX without spending the extra money. But, I leave that choice to you.
Dunkirk – ***3/4 out of 5
Dunkirk – Rated PG-13 for war violence, battle sequences and scenes of terror
Dunkirk – Run Time is 106 minutes
Dunkirk is now playing in theaters. Check your local listings for times and locations nearest you.