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Dunkirk marks a first for Christopher Nolan, it being a film based on real events rather from his own material, but also a first for me in that it marks the only time to date I do not want to see one of his films a second time. That is not a criticism of Dunkirk at all, and in fact it might be the highest praise I could offer, but after experiencing what Dunkirk is, there is no going back to it or from it. It’s a monumental piece of filmmaking, and while it revels in the excesses that have come to define Nolan, it is also a remarkably cohesive work, unlike any in the genre, and will stay with you long after it is over.
As the trailers suggest, there is barely any dialogue, the film reliant on the action and music to tell the story, itself told from three perspectives. They are land, sea, and air, each separated at the start with a title card and demarcation of time for the how long each is represented in the film. We are introduced violently to a character we follow for the duration, he being Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young soldier not interested at this point in the war and all the machinations of being such, but rather just staying alive. He finds himself on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, just across from England, where some 400,000 soldiers are trapped in the harbor and surrounded by German forces. Tommy represents the land. In the sea is Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) a civilian mariner crossing the English Channel as part of the rescue effort, and in the air is Farrier (Tom Hardy), piloting an Allied Spitfire, part of a very small force trying to thin the German air attack.
Told in disjointed segments that keep the story nonlinear, Dunkirk is familiar in context but not delivery, the tropes of the genre inescapable, but imagined on screen both visually and auditorily with such devastating impact, it tells a war story very differently from any other. Almost devoid of spoken words, with those that are doing nothing for the plot but expressing reactions to what is happening, the momentum is unnerving, it’s pace kept moving by another sensational score by Hans Zimmer, a riveting set of music that, much like their last collaboration, Interstellar, dominates much of the film.
This all leaves the viewer initially a bit disoriented, which is surely the point. We know nothing of these men, even the main characters, only given the slightest of background to the event in a few sentences of text on screen at the start. We are, like them, trapped in a veritable hell with seemingly no escape and must simply survive. Naturally, there are men on both sides of bravery and courage, with some opting to give up and let the sea take them while most, numb to death already, stand in silent formation by the waves, watching the skies. Kenneth Branagh plays a pier-master on the East Mole, trying to direct lines of men to boats, witnessing unbearable tragedies as his efforts do not always succeed, the reign of death from German bombers a constant threat. He is a proud man and we watch with wonder at his mettle.
Of the film’s many memorable takeaways, perhaps it is the sounds of Dunkirk that have the most impact, the whine of diving planes and falling bombs, the crush of steel warships surrendering to the sea as their hulls crumble under fire, the calls of agony and fear of men scurrying for their lives. Nolan uses all of these as echoes over Zimmer’s music and it is an affecting combination. Dunkirk is a triumph in delivering a harrowing true story to life, a powerfully suspenseful experience that justifies being claimed perhaps the best work Nolan has ever achieved, or even the greatest war film ever made. Argue over that as you may, he continues to explore and reshape the modern blockbuster, once again proving he is the man to beat.
Movie description: Dunkirk is a 2017 war film about Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France who are surrounded by the German army and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II.
Director(s): Christopher Nolan
Actor(s): Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard, Tom Hardy, Kennth Branagh
Genre: War, Drama