Movie Review: In adapting historical events, Christopher Nolan makes his most Nolan-esque movie yet with “Dunkirk”.
Yes, there will be spoilers ahead.
There is a small but militant contingent of Film Twitter who have adopted the stance that if you, the viewer, don’t see Christopher Nolan’s new film “Dunkirk” in the 70MM/Imax format, then you are somehow less than human. Of course, urbane, movie-loving audiences in coastal cities like Los Angeles and New York will have plenty of opportunities to do just that. The problem is that these jaundiced critical types seem to have forgotten about the vast majority of the country, who may or may not have access to that aforementioned luxury. Just because we as movie-lovers are afforded a privilege wherein we are able to see a film in a rarefied format, that does not mean that we shower contempt (sorry, contemptuous Tweets) upon those who simply don’t have the choice.
That said, it would make sense to want to see Mr. Nolan’s thunderous, astonishing tenth feature in its intended theatrical presentation. Along with Quentin Tarantino and J.J. Abrams, Mr. Nolan is one of a few working directors who remains a tireless advocate for the preservation of film. As someone who has now seen “Dunkirk” on the Imax screen, and in jaw-dropping 70MM, I will say this: if you have the opportunity to see this movie projected that way, do it. Seriously. Buy a ticket as soon as you can, and just fucking go. While “Dunkirk” is by no means the flawless victory that some of its more enthusiastic proponents have made it out to be, it is still the year’s most immersive cinematic experience thus far. I can’t think of many other works that could potentially match it for sheer, visceral, bone-rattling impact.
The real-life story behind “Dunkirk” is one that is familiar to many Brits, but may not be for many Americans. The Battle of Dunkirk was fought on the Western Front of France in 1940. Mr. Nolan’s lean, often harrowing tour-de-force is almost entirely concerned with Operation Dynamo, which would come to be known as the “Miracle of Dunkirk”. The Operation centered around a concerted effort by British/Allied naval forces to evacuate over 400,000 soldiers from the corpse-strewn beaches of Dunkirk Harbour. Mr. Nolan has said in interviews that his own fascination with the Dunkirk story has been a driving force in his life long before he began writing the script for this new film, and watching the finished product, it’s easy to detect the tremendous degree of love and passion that went into its making. With that in mind, it’s tempting to call “Dunkirk” — Mr. Nolan’s most biggest, ballsiest, most ambitious effort to date — the closest thing that this famously cold director has ever made to a personal statement.
Just as “Interstellar” wasn’t your typical cornball space opera, “The Dark Knight” wasn’t your typical superhero film, and, uh, “The Prestige” isn’t your average tale of resentful magicians in Victorian London, so too is “Dunkirk” a far cry from your average agonies-of-war picture. Though the movie has probably enjoyed the most favorable critical reaction of any of Nolan’s movies to date, some have lambasted the PG-13-rated “Dunkirk” for sanitizing the carnage of combat. These folks have accused “Dunkirk”of diluting a brutal historical catastrophe into something like resembling an anemic, larger-than-life action picture. Nevermind the fact that Nolan’s set pieces here are as whiplash-inducing as anything he’s ever filmed: even without blood and guts, the movie manages to be plenty unsettling.
Truthfully, “Dunkirk” doesn’t play like a standard war film for much of its fleet, 106-minute runtime. Mr. Nolan has clearly seen a great many war pictures, and while his new film occasionally tips its soldier’s cap to Kubrick’s similarly severe “Paths of Glory” and also the widescreen epics of David Lean, the characteristically crafty writer/director also has a few unusual tricks up his sleeve.
Mr. Nolan, who has the left-brain instincts of an accountant or a sleight-of-hand artist, enjoys dividing his narratives up into neatly synchronized coexisting realities that conjoin with lockstep precision somewhere near the climax of his films. He utilized this technique in the head-spinning final stretch of his otherwise overrated mind-heist thriller “Inception,” and also in the cosmically expansive and unusually heartfelt denouement of “Interstellar”. The action in “Dunkirk” unfolds in a kind of triptych format: one that follows a story on the land, as well as one by water and another by sky, as they unfold in a kind of breathless real time.
His critics might assert that, as is his custom, Mr. Nolan is simply being clever for the sake of being clever here. Nothing could be further from the truth. “Dunkirk” is a sweeping audio/visual masterwork, one that is distinguished by its often-startling contradictions. The entirety of the film unfolds through an immense, God’s-eye perspective, and yet “Dunkirk’s” most memorable moments are wordless, atmospheric vignettes where Mr. Nolan flaunts his fearsome, preternatural abilities as one of our premiere visual storytellers.
In juxtaposing the war’s geopolitical ramifications with the ground-level panic experienced by the soldiers on the frontlines — many of whom, if the movie is believed to be accurate, look no older than your average high-school senior — Nolan presents viewers with a staggering panoramic portrait of a single military disaster that would go on to define a nation. The jury is still out as to whether or not this is Mr. Nolan’s finest hour behind the camera, but it is a genuinely awe-inspiring theatrical experience in a year that has seen precious few of them. It’s a shimmering marvel of pure technical craft.
The opening passage of “Dunkirk” contains some of the most rapturous filmmaking of Mr. Nolan’s career. Hotye Van Hotyema’s camera glides down an eerily quiet sidestreet in coastal France as war pamphlets fall like rain from a sleet-grey sky. Young men in British military garb saunter down the avenue, the invisible threat of dark forces looming on the horizon. The camera lingers in particular on the haunted face of one young soldier, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead in a remarkable, near-wordless turn), whose fearful, angular expression recalls that of Nolan’s frequent leading man, Christian Bale.
Not five minutes later and nearly all of Tommy’s mates have been gunned down in a terrifying blitzkrieg. Petrified, the young man flees to the nearby shores of Dunkirk, where thousands of his fellow countrymen line the sands in enormous, snaking formations as the sounds of bombfire echo from overhead. We’re not even ten minutes into the film, and not a word of dialogue has been uttered — yet, already, Mr. Nolan has begun to fill the margins of his canvas. Tommy and his friends are sitting ducks, with no resources and with nowhere to run. They could easily be picked off (“like fish in a barrel,” as one character states) at a moment’s notice. The only thing on their side is time.
The first segment of the film is called “The Mole,” referring to the colossal stone pier jutting out from the Dunkirk beach breakaway. It’s a nifty architectural feat, except for one key drawback: it leaves nearly all of the British infantrymen woefully exposed to the enemy, who circle like hungry vultures overhead. With the unseen Axis powers surrounding them on all sides, Nolan wastes absolutely no time in throwing his characters (and us, by proxy) into the maelstrom. The miracle is that he somehow keeps us there — anxious, awestruck, and dazzled — until the moment he finally cuts to black.
For a director who possesses a sometimes-irritating knack for explaining his puzzle-box narratives through unwieldy dumps of exposition, the spare, almost silent nature of “Dunkirk” is its own reward. It should be said that the lion’s share of the exposition is delivered by none other than Kenneth Branagh, who lends his magisterial sense of authority to the part of Commander Bolton. If you’re going to have an actor do nothing but essentially deliver exposition, you could do a lot worse than Branagh.
Yet, “Dunkirk” itself moves at too blistering of a speed to let Nolan’s typical proclivity for over-explanation hamper the proceedings. This is not a movie with teary-eyed “I just wanna go home” monologues or extended digressions where we get to know the soldiers on a personal level. Like most of Mr. Nolan’s movies, “Dunkirk” is a machine, distinguished by its masterful technical merits and its pristine, puzzlebox veneer. What makes it more than just a feat of moviemaking might — and what distinguishes it from a lot of Nolan’s other movies — is that it comes bearing an unexpectedly touching human core.
That essential human empathy comes to the forefront in the movie’s stirring second timeline, which takes place largely at sea and is anchored (forgive the pun) on the world-weary, inherently decent countenance of that indispensable character actor Mark Rylance. Rylance plays a kind old chap named Mr. Dawson: a weekend sailor who, along with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), finds himself summoned to the volatile shores near Dunkirk to assist with evacuating the stranded and wounded troops.
Along the way, Dawson intercepts a shivering, traumatized military grunt (Nolan vet Cillian Murphy, communicating a lot without saying much), and later suffers a devastating loss when he decides to bring a fresh-faced young lad, George, (Barry Keoghan, next to be seen in Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) along for the journey. Though the movie sometimes moves at too brisk a pace to allow its actors to really shine, Rylance’s turn here is a marvel of understated humanism. He communicates a great deal with his face and vocal inflections alone, though Nolan’s script benefits from the lack of plot-intensive jargon usually supplied by his brother and co-writer, Jonathan (currently acting as showrunner on HBO’s sci-fi hit “Westworld”). Rylance possesses one of the great faces in modern movies, and I’m thrilled that Nolan seems to have written a role that was custom-made for his very peculiar talents. It’s one of the most fascinating, watchable supporting turns of 2016.
Other big names show up in “Dunkirk” as well, including former OneDirection member and pop heartthrob Harry Styles as a caustic young foot soldier named Alex. Nolan favorite Tom Hardy gets to act mostly with his eyes, playing a lethally focused Spitfire pilot named Farrier (after seeing this film, I’m convinced that Mr. Nolan prefers Mr. Hardy with a garbled voice, and his handsome face obscured by a mask).
Of course, “Dunkirk” is not about any one soldier in particular. The remarkable Mr. Whitehead probably comes the closest to emerging as the movie’s protagonist, and he gets to read Winston Churchill’s rousing Dunkirk speech in the movie’s exquisite final moments. And yet, because Mr. Nolan is not a particularly personal director, and because he seems to possess immense reverence for the real-life heroes of Operation Dynamo, the film keeps its focus and its authorial canvas far-reaching. This is a film where all the actors — on land, sea, and in the air — gel into one singular, cohesive organism. Triumph would not mean defeating the enemy in a bloody, typically protracted war-movie showdown, where every performer gets their moment to shine. The only triumph in “Dunkirk” is collective survival.
Nolan is working with a lot of his usual collaborators here, including Hotyema, editor Lee Smith, costume designer Jeffrey Kurland, and composer Hans Zimmer, who tones down the usually more bombastic pieces he reserves for Nolan’s films and delivers a score that mirrors the clipped, clock-is-ticking energy of the film we’re watching. In fact, Zimmer occasionally works the actual sound of a metronome winding down into his nervous symphony of percussion and strings, and the effect is so seamless that you almost don’t notice it at first. Hotyema, meanwhile, proves himself to be the film’s real ace in the hole. His images have a crispness to them — an icy, cool-blue clarity that was sometimes lacking in the work of Nolan’s former D.P., Wally Pfister. The movie’s aerial sequences are unlike anything I’ve ever seen on a big screen. If the movie’s dizzying dogfights don’t give you vertigo, then congratulations: you’ve lost your capacity to be wowed.
I’m gushing pretty hard over “Dunkirk,” so now is probably a good time to clarify that the movie does have its flaws. There are times when Mr. Nolan’s macro-scale approach does have its drawbacks: as our characters are put through one unimaginable, unendurable situation after another, we do occasionally find ourselves wanting to know a bit more about them. Thankfully, Mr. Nolan trusts his performers to do much of the movie’s heavy lifting with silent glances and cutting physical tells. He’s become an astute observer of the contours of the human face, and how light and camera movement can be utilized to capture the roiling sea of moods that exists just beneath the surface of his actor’s expressions. “Dunkirk” is such an embarrassment of sensory virtues that its drawbacks — a few clunky line readings here and there, a third-act twist that’s supposed to make you sit up in your seat, but instead makes you scratch your head — mostly fade into memory by the time you’ve walked out of the theater.
The movie fits in surprisingly well with the rest of Nolan’s oeuvre: his obsession with water as a vague metaphor for salvation continues, and the crafty clockwork narrative feels straight out of “Memento,” the gritty neo-noir that helped to catapult the director to the top of the Hollywood totem pole. Truly though, I’m still kicking myself at the prospect of Nolan somehow convincing Warner Brothers to pay $150 million for a non-franchise/non-comic book property about an event that most Americans have never heard of before. The director has described his shorthand pitch for “Dunkirk” as “VR without the headset,” and he was not kidding. This is one of the kind of blockbuster that you absorb, and one that absorbs you in turn. The fact that it’s almost as great as everyone says it is — that’s just an added bonus. Grade: A-.