Year of release: 2017 Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Fionn Whithead, Damien Bonnard, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy and Kenneth Branagh.
Dunkirk is relentless. I say that as neither praise nor criticism, but as mere statement of fact, much in the same way one would say Les Miserables is a musical or Gone with the Wind is the longest Best Picture winner or Mad Max: Fury Road is an epic car chase. Dunkirk is relentless, and that is clearly something of which Christopher Nolan is proud.
Nolan has so clearly accomplished exactly what he wanted with Dunkirk that the film is in many ways critic-proof. Sure, it’s possible to say one dislikes it, and it’s also possible to rave about it as the best film of the year. In both cases, the writer will be revealing more about themselves and their personal tastes than the film, and they will not be acknowledging that the film strikingly and stunningly achieves everything it wanted to, so if there are aspects one dislikes, those are not filmmaking weaknesses.
The same goes for Hans Zimmer’s score; one can love or hate his incessantly pulsating soundtrack telling the audience exactly what emotions to feel in each scene, but it’s impossible to deny that the score massively aids in the creation of the tense, heart-pounding atmosphere that Zimmer and Nolan worked so hard to achieve.
Watching this epic historical rescue mission condensed down to a taut, nerve-racking hour and forty-six minutes is a cinematic experience like no other. Seeing Dunkirk on anything other than the largest screen possible will be watching a mere shadow of Nolan’s vision, much like listening to an mp3 of a Beethoven symphony through a mediocre ear bud will only convey a fragment of Beethoven’s genius.
Before I continue, let me state clearly that I think Dunkirk is an astonishing achievement. Early buzz hinted at its staggering realism in making the viewer experience the reality of war first hand. While it undeniably makes the viewer experience the events of the story first hand, it is not a war film, and it doesn’t convey the cost of war or the notion that war is hell, at least not in a traditional sense. Instead it places the viewer directly in the midst of a dangerous and desperate rescue mission, showing the cost of victory, bravery, and heroism, clearly demonstrating that there is nobility in capture or retreat. It is that rescue mission the viewer survives along with the characters.
And it is a rescue mission to behold! There were several times I gasped believing I was really present. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema captures the beauty and the menace of the sea and shore, the simultaneous threat and salvation they provide to the soldiers, which is important considering the Nazis are never once seen in the film, but their absence coupled with the danger of the Dunkirk beach makes their looming proximity felt all the more.
The rescue mission takes place on land, sea, and in air, with each portion of the rescue occurring in its own timeline – a week for the almost 400,000 soldiers stranded at the Dunkirk beach, a day for the British sailors coming to their rescue across the Channel, and one hour for the pilots attempting to shoot down Nazi planes. Nolan cuts between the three storylines and timelines effortlessly, much the same way he did with Memento, and when he brings all three together at the film’s climax, he finds the best of all his cinematic interests. His puzzle crafting skills and humanist interests serve one another in an inspiring way I would not have believed possible.
The film’s climax was truly the make or break moment for me, and in my opinion Nolan pulled it off in spades. I had spent the eighty minutes prior to that unsure whether I loved or hated the film. It was easy to admire the intensity and purity of Nolan’s vision, so stunningly captured, yet the shock and awe of the proceedings, while admirable at first, were stretching me to my breaking point, which I think was Nolan’s intention to reflect the ordeal of the soldiers. Then the climax arrived, and with it, not only the dispersion of the tension, but a beautiful moment of hope celebrating the sacrificial virtue of the rescuers, acknowledging the heroism of retreat, the triumph of capture, and the victory in loss of a battle. The simple line uttered by Kenneth Branagh’s navy captain with joy and gravitas underscored all those sentiments perfectly.
At that moment there was also a stark change in the score, as Zimmer’s driving pulsation gave way to a soaring string melody using Elgar’s theme from the Enigma Variations. Hearing that theme was a welcome reprieve from the intensity of the prior cues, but more importantly, the grandeur of one of the most famous British musical themes captured the importance of taking the soldiers home away from the war while mirroring their own relief, which again, I believe was the point.
Watching this film projected on 70mm IMAX, I had to remind myself to breathe on several occasions. Not only was the tension so great that it seemed as if the viewer were surviving the rescue mission alongside the soldiers, but there were many breathtaking instances of beauty to behold as well. Regardless of how one feels about Nolan forcing his audience to experience a soldier’s point of view in way no other film has done, Dunkirk is undisputedly bold and daring cinema. It’s a film I can honestly say I loved, even while acknowledging it is not one I’ll revisit too frequently.
Personal Recommendation: A-
Content advisory: Extremely intense, but non-graphic war time violence; a few crass words MPAA rating: PG-13
Suggested Audience: Teens and up.