Dunkirk review: You Don’t Watch it, You Feel it
Director Christopher Nolan’s WWII film Dunkirk is probably not the film you think it is, at least not based on the trailers. It’s much better, which means it will also be fairly divisive.
It isn’t a popcorn film, nor is it an action war movie in the vein of Saving Private Ryan. If anything, it’s closer to Terrance Malick’s The Thin Red Line. With one or two minor exceptions, none of the characters have names; you never see the face of a German soldier; most of the characters have only a few lines throughout the entire movie. Dunkirk is a big budget experiment, the kind that only comes around when a director has made a studio billions of dollars (literally) and has the freedom to try things without worrying about box office. Nolan is one of the few directors active today that can go to a studio and request a nine digital budget for a passion project featuring an ensemble cast and a story about defeat.
The result is the type of movie aspiring filmmakers will be watching for years and excitedly telling their friends how amazing each shot they are seeing is. It’s the type of film that critics will fall in love with even as Spider-Man: Homecoming smashes it at the box office (over a month, if not outright in its opening weekend). It’s the type of film that the Academy Awards will trip over themselves to throw awards at, even as some of his fans ask Nolan if he will ever direct another superhero movie.
Dunkirk isn’t a movie about a handful of characters that you empathize with and end up seeing the war through their eyes, it is a war film told almost from the point of view of the war. It’s broken up into three distinct, concurrent sections: The beach at Dunkirk and the evacuation of the soldiers; the sea, specifically a privately owned English boat called the Moonstone traveling the English Channel to reach Dunkirk; the air, showing the RAF as they fought off the German Luftwaffe. Each section has a primary star or group of people it focuses on, making the individual stories feel more like vignettes than a traditional narrative. They all work together to give a sense of the overall operation.
Nolan approaches the story with the presupposition that the audience is already familiar with the events of the Dunkirk Evacuation, also known as Operation Dynamo. To the British, it is one of the most famous stories of the Second World War, and many see it as a defining moment in that conflict, and by extension, all modern history.
In May of 1940, the Allied Armies – consisting of the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, and Canada were on the run from the Nazis. After just a few weeks of fighting, Germany controlled the majority of Europe, including most of France. The Allied Forces were forced back tot he ocean, caught almost completely off guard by the German tactics. Several hundred thousand troops were trapped on the beaches, including 400,000 French and British at the port town of Dunkirk. What happened next is something that military historians will debate for the rest of time.
With the remaining Allies trapped in Dunkirk, Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt ordered the German army to halt, fearing for his flanks and the marshy lands around the town. Hitler approved of the halt and also allowed the Luftwaffe time to rest after two weeks of constant battle. That gave the Allies time to mount defenses and enact Operation Dynamo, a plan to send 800 ships – some military but mostly civilian – across the English Channel and evacuate the remaining troops.
The remaining British and French troops were aided by Dunkirk’s natural geography, which featured a massive, mile-long mole (a protective structure that acts like a pier, but with no room underneath) that protected the beach and the ships coming in. Despite that, eventually the German order to advance came, leading to a daring and terrifying night evacuation. The British and French armies were rescued and brought back to England in what was referred to as a “disaster turned to triumph.” If the troops had not made it out of France, Great Britain would likely have fallen soon after, and the world would look very different.
Nolan assumes you already know all of this, but even if you don’t, the visual presentation of Dunkirk is enough to keep your focus. You may have trouble even distinguishing the most prominent character on the beach (Fionn Whitehead). You may wonder where you know the civilian boat owner from (Mark Rylance) and how Cillian Murphy fits in. You may not be able to tell which RAF pilot is Tom Hardy and which is the guy that is not Tom Hardy (Jack Lowden). But it doesn’t matter, the film is tension incarnate. You know what you need to, and you see how it all connects at the end.
The film is also told mostly linearly, but only within each section. This is a bit confusing at first, as the air battle – introduced a few minutes into the film – is actually taking place days after the start of the beach evacuation and the sea voyage begins a day before the air battle. But it all converges on one point. It also allows for a few effective surprises, as you see characters in one section, then see an earlier version of them meant to emphasizes the change.
Dunkirk is a master class on visual storytelling and using sensory input to convey emotion. The sound is also used to incredible effect, as bullets rip through metal with a jarring pop and the sounds of different aircraft engines are used to convey relief or horror depending on who they belong to (the sound editing is one of the many Oscars this film deserves to win). The music is also less of a score and more of a steady hum meant to unsettle you. The result is an experience rather than a story. You don’t watch Dunkirk, you feel it.
There will, of course, be a huge contingent of people that won’t be willing to give the movie a chance – and that’s fair. Some people need a character or characters to invest in for them to really feel a connection to the film. To them, Dunkirk will probably feel like an interesting but shallow experiment. If you can get past that, however, you’ll understand why Dunkirk is the early favorite for best picture of 2017.
Dunkirk Review Conclusion
Dunkirk is a success, even if it isn’t destined to be the box office hit that Nolan’s previous films were – there’s just too much work required by the viewer, and it isn’t the type of movie that people will want to go see multiple times for fun. WB may also have hurt the box office by releasing it in the height of summer blockbuster film season rather than holding it for later in the year, closer to what we traditionally consider “Oscar Season.”
Regardless, Dunkirk is an exceptional movie, one of the best of the year. It does things no other film this year has done, and it does it effectively. It won’t win over those looking for a companion to Saving Private Ryan, but it should fill that urge for people desperately looking for something original and well-made, and it should help keep Nolan operating on a level few others are on.
Dunkirk is rated PG-13 with a running time of 106 minutes.