‘Dunkirk’ Is A Soul-Stirring Cinematic Achievement

Christopher Nolan is a scientist. The man loves experimenting and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with film. He also has a fascination with time, which seems to work its way into all of his narratives. Something as simple as the tick of a clock or a spinning top can toy with how our minds perceive situations.

Nolan’s latest, Dunkirk, looks like he’s taking an orthodox approach in telling the events of the famous World War II battle, where approximately four-hundred thousand British and French soldiers were stranded waiting to be rescued. Orthodox, hardly. Dunkirk is not a character drama set during the Second World War; the event is the story.

This pivotal moment seems to be overshadowed by other wartime battles but in Nolan’s hands it becomes an unrelenting drama about failure, desperation, and gallantry. Each passing minute the tension builds until ship bulkheads strain. Then the tides change and the process repeats.

The film is divided into three segments all of which interconnect. The first is The Mole (the name for the stone embankment jutting into the water where soldiers line up to go aboard rescue vessels). The others are The Sea and The Air. Now here is where Christopher Nolan’s brilliance shines. On the coastline a week’s worth of time is compressed as we shadow a tousled British private (Fionn Whitehead) and his various attempts to get off the beach. Aboard Moonstone, a small ship captained by mariner Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and neighbor George (Barry Keoghan), they swiftly sail the English Channel to help with the evacuation. During the voyage they rescue a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) adrift at sea. Taking to the air, minutes are crucial to RAF pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy). His plane is running low on fuel as he provides cover fire for the rescue boats.

Restraining the narrative to just a few characters and their participation in the evacuation actually magnifies the canvas and thus engages audiences to stay attentive. As an added insurance, Lee Smith’s editing – he’s been Nolan’s collaborator since Batman Begins – keeps moments taut as we crosscut from action on land, sea, or take to the air. Time also moves backwards and forwards and overlaps. When set to Hans Zimmer’s magnificent score, the music pounds and hums like the ticking of a clock, the rescue becomes that more suspenseful.

Backstory and exposition are immaterial; we drop in as soldiers retreat. Propaganda leaflets fall from above onto desolate roads with the words We Surround You. Dialogue is also kept to a minimum; sound and image are imperious in moving the story.

Dunkirk demands to be seen in the best possible way. Hoyte Van Hoytema shot the film in 70mm, and the film joins Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight as recent titles to be presented in this format. We see the breadth of the beach, and feel claustrophobic when a ship is torpedoed and begins to take on water. On the Moonstone the Channel seems to stretch forever when, in actuality, there is only about twenty miles between the shores of the French province and the English coastline. But the most breathtaking image may be of Farrier gliding over the beach before touching down. His Submarine Spitfire glistens as the sun slowly begins to set.

The melding of time and space, of sound and image. These Christopher Nolan hallmarks could have been hokey in a war picture, and yet come together to create a transcendent experience not likely to be topped in 2017. Under Nolan’s skillful direction, he takes the war drama to new heights by turning Dunkirk into a soul-stirring cinematic achievement.

Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy, Harry Styles
Rating: PG-13 (for intense war experience and some language)
Running Time: 107 minutes

1 Comment

  1. Julie Wakley

    August 3, 2017 at 8:26 am

    I saw this movie twice, and I would highly recommend seeing it in an IMAX theater. It is an amazing movie that draws you in to the story, and the action. The ending, with the soldier reading Winston Churchill’s stirring speech, was incredible. I think everyone should see this movie; it is so inspiring.

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