I’ve been a fan of Christopher Nolan ever since a young Bruce Wayne fell down a well 12 years ago. Since then I have grown a passion for film and subsequently have watched all of Nolan’s films several times. Dunkirk was my most anticipated movie coming into this year, and I am happy to report I am not disappointed.
Nolan has delivered another classic.
Dunkirk is Nolan’s first non fiction movie, and for his film he chose a story that hit close to home. Set near the start of WW2 in 1940 as the allied troops flee from the advancing german armies in northern France after the capture of Paris and neighboring countries, they are forced to the beaches of Dunkirk with no escape in sight. As they wait to be picked off by german bombers we see the nearly 400,000 men fight to leave by any means necessary. Codenamed Operation Dynamo, Winston Churchill ordered the activation of the civilian reserves in order to help bring the thousands of soldiers home.
Filmed as 3 different storylines that unfold simultaneously, the movie starts as we are dropped right into the action with unknown un-introduced character, this is a common theme throughout the movie. We follow him for nearly 15 minutes as he wanders around the war torn beach trying desperately to find find a way home. This first scene short on the actual beaches of Dunkirk, France sets the tone for the rest of the film, as a realistic, tense, and subtle movie, with very little dialogue. This scene is followed by an introduction of a family setting sail to rescue the stranded soldiers across the English Channel. Soon after we see a group of British fighter pilots flying in formation on their way to Dunkirk, in order to defend the fleeing ships from the German Luftwaffe air forces.
As the movie unfolds these storylines interact in unexpected ways throughout the non-linear progression of the film.
Rather than introducing each character with a thought out backstory for you to latch onto Nolan films it as if you are soldier on the beach with these men, this means no small talk, no “I got this girl waiting for me back home” type of scenes. Instead Nolan shuffles through the various story lines being careful not to focus on one character for too long to avoid slowing down the whole movie. In order to hammer in the inexperience of the soldiers Nolan cast 19 year old first time actor Fionn Whitehead for the lead.
The scenes with combat are handled tastefully, as this film is a PG 13 there is no gruesome shots like in Saving Private Ryan for example, the camera instead focuses on our character’s reaction to the various bombings and shootouts.
The action scenes come mostly in the form of dog fighting scenes which are shot brilliantly allowing us to follow where all the planes are at a given time while also showing us what the various pilots see as they battle the German forces.
The characters in the movie show all sides of war, whether it be a shell shocked young man wanting desperately to return home, a valiant soldier doing anything to help his brothers, or a General trying anything to get his men home. This film is also careful to never show us anything the characters on screen don’t know. For instance other films might have shown a German submarine looming in the water prior to a scene on a boat as to keep you in suspense as to when the submarine will come into play, Nolan decides instead to never show anything but our characters point of view creating dread and panic as you watch praying that there escape from France will be successful.
Shot by Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema whose work can be seen on the films Interstellar and Her this film is beautiful, from the long shots filled with thousands of extras along the actual beaches of Dunkirk, to the spectacular air battles, this film is best enjoyed in IMAX as 75% of the film was shot with their massive cameras.
This film is not perfect however, at times it can slow down especially near the middle of the film with a drawn out boat sequence, at other times the editing was a little intrusive and distracted from the action taking place. There was also a couple of characters that seemed a bit useless or out of place.
I recommend doing a little background research prior to going to see the film to understand this significance of the events taking place as it is a WW2 event that few know about but many more should as it was an event that changed the course of history and likely lead to the Nazis failure along the western front. There is a terrific video from Colin Moriarty I highly recommend on the topic.
At an 1 hour and 46 minutes Dunkirk doesn’t overstay its welcome, instead delivering a well paced thriller of a war film. I highly Recommend Dunkirk to any fan of Nolan’s or WW2 films. It is fantastically shot and grips you from the start and tells an incredible true story few in North America know about.