The timing of this review is much later than I would have liked. Still, I am only just now able to watch the latest film from one of my favorite directors, Christopher Nolan. With a career I’ve followed closely, you’re unlikely to find another director as adept today at bringing spectacle with real cinematic merit better than him. After creating arguably the greatest superhero trilogy in his Dark Knight films starring Christian Bale. While many know him primarily from them, he has proven his prowess throughout his career, often handling intricate, yet accessible plots with careful precision, all the while standing by classic filmmaking techniques while others forgo those methods, right and left.
It is these attributes that will always ensure I am there to see what he does next. Months ago, trailers gave audiences our first glimpse of Dunkirk, and immediately, we were shown what to expect: dizzying visuals, intercut narratives, and tension arising more from music, setpieces, and tone than with dialogue. I will admit: the trailers left me puzzled, but also, intrigued. I guess that should be the aim of any promotional material: give folks just enough to guarantee they pay to see it all. Still, as familiar as I am with Nolan’s work, I knew that while he captured the look of World War II perfectly, there would certainly be factors at play that distinguish this film from more traditional war pictures…and, of course, Nolan proved me right.
We immediately jump into the streets of Dunkirk, and through a soldier’s POV, we learn of the central problem through a progressively revealed text-overlay and an tense sequence almost without dialogue: the Nazi forces have forced the British, French, and other Allied Forces to the coast, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers wait, helpless to the attacks of enemy planes. After witnessing the scale of the forces on the beaches and the introduction of two other narratives in both air and sea, the text goes away, but audiences should prepare to witness all events firsthand, moreso than have any plot recollected to them. Often, dialogue comes quickly and even sometimes through a thick brogue; if you miss it, don’t expect details to be related again amd again. The situations don’t allow for all that. This is war, even if the method of storytelling is unconventional to this genre. This is much more of akin to a disaster film than anything resembling your typical sentimental soldier story. Yes, you will care about those you follow through the film, but details like names and stories of those back home shouldn’t be expected here. Survival is foremost.
While we might think it hard to fathom that we might turn away another trying to survive just like us, when rescue efforts seem only able to assist a few, we see the hearts of men revealed. Divisions caused by nationality and the capacity for mistrust all rear up in the film among other things, but these are things that must be overcome, and while rescue efforts from the military were minimal and largely doomed, we see in the civilian sailor played by Mark Rylance and the British pilot played by Tom Hardy that much can be done when looking ill circumstances in the face headlong and charging on to assist the helpless.
I know many of my readers are worldwide, but as I watched this largely British tale from an American perspective, I grieved throughout, because while my country (and my world) needs the same sense of selflessness and heroism in our civilians or otherwise, I fear we are past seeing it. Every military action is so politicized today within the media and amongst the populace that I daresay we wouldn’t run to the aid of our military kinsman of our own nation or any other as we see here. While the world was at war, I would hope we could see the sanctity of life and run towards preserving it in a time of need.
The direction of the film is masterfully done; setpieces don’t feel like that as much as they do actual real events. I can think of no higher compliment for production design. When bombs ring out, you feel it in this film, because often, you are there in perspective with the men fighting for their lives. Ships and planes occupy real space here, and that can’t always be said of films today. While the film is never visually graphic in its depiction of violence, the sound design ensures this film isn’t for the faint of heart. Hans Zimmer can aurally adjust tone as well as anyone, but here, there will be many who will take issue, I feel. In The Dark Knight, you knew exactly when The Joker came on-screen by the screeching wail of his score; it brought immediate discomfort and set the tone for his scenes. Here, we get that same effect…for almost the entire movie. I acknowledge it because while it is extremely effective, it is grating at times. To which I could likely hear in response, “But war isn’t comfortable.” Still, it makes the experience one I don’t plan to revisit as often as other Nolan films. Dunkirk‘s interesting take on interlaced narratives shouldn’t surprise fans of Nolan’s Inception or Interstellar, and it instantly make it stand apart from any other war film that comes to mind. Kenneth Branagh, Hardy, Rylance, and the cast-at-large all impressed me, even One Direction’s Harry Styles in his first film role.
Content-wise, there are some instances of language; years ago, the words said an a couple of occasions would have meant an R-rating, even if blood is sparing and never graphically shown. With only two women speaking only a line or two, there is no real male-female interaction, let alone any sexual content in the film. I was stirred to consider the lengths one can go to in serving those in need, even with them paying the ultimate price of their own life. If that’s not a Christian message emerging from a film, I don’t know what is.
Nolan always makes films that engage the brain as much as any other faculty, and here, we see a film that is as visceral and experiential as anything he’s ever done. It isn’t my favorite from him, but that is only because it is so effective in doing what it sets out to do. If you wish to plumb the depths and scale the heights of war, there is no other film I can recall that will take you there quite like Dunkirk. You may not return often, but you won’t likely forget the journey it creates.