The technical perfection of “Dunkirk” is astounding. The film will literally take your breath away. It’s handsomely shot and directed by Christopher Nolan, a bonafide auteur of the medium who has one of the greatest understandings of the cinematic language, period. This is an eye-popping WWII movie that effectively thrusts audiences right in the middle of a war, creating a shared experience of intense desperation, fear, determination, and heroism.
“Dunkirk” tells the true story of Allied troops and their planned evacuation from the French city. With Nazi forces quickly closing in, these brave men are quickly running out of time. The drama is told from the perspective of three different soldiers: a grunt on the ground (Fionn Whitehead), a steadfast pilot in the air (Tom Hardy), and a civilian villager sailing the seas (Mark Rylance) to help rescue some of the 400,000 trapped men.
The performances are moving and satisfying all around, including exceptional supporting turns from Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, and Jack Lowden. I’d like to tell you more about these characters and their motivations, but the visuals are crafted with such exactness that the story and character development take a backseat to Nolan’s showy IMAX cameras.
But maybe there’s a profound point to the stylish minimalism of both the visuals as well as the story (also written by Nolan). We never get the back story of the characters, and some we never even learn their names. These men are soldiers, just another number in just another war. There are long, elegant, and pensive shots of empty beaches, ocean foam, and the helmets of thousands of young men. Its quietly devastating beauty is as overwhelming as it is effective.
See this in 70mm if you can, because the richness of actual film is perfect partner to the cinematography and subject matter. The stunning aerial fight sequences really make you feel as if you are right there along with these British soldiers, and it’s sort of remarkable that Nolan is able to convey the horrors of war with a short run time and a PG-13 rating. “Dunkirk” somehow finds a balance between honoring the bravery of the military yet soundly condemning the act of war.
This is a smart historical WWII film, the antithesis of the big, dumb, loud, superhero summer blockbuster. But there’s a level of sophistication that effectively disguises what this movie really is: ambitious, manipulative Oscar bait.
This is the kind of movie that critics and awards voters love. Yes, the cinematography is stunning but overall, the film isn’t quite as epic as it wants you to believe. The ticking stopwatch in Hans Zimmer’s booming, overwrought score will beat you over the head even more so than Nolan’s overall desire to make an unconventional, almost experimental style war movie (even if you removed its sparse dialogue, I think this would’ve succeeded as a completely silent film). The ending is marred with a bit of hokey sentimentality which may succeed in eliciting tears from the audience, but it is also successful in lessening some of the emotional impact of what came before.
Overall, I highly recommend “Dunkirk” as it is one of the best and most memorable movies of the year. Was I simply mesmerized by the spectacle of it all? Maybe. But as a lover of the visual arts, this is one hell of a stunning war picture.