Christopher Nolan Gets His Mojo Back with a Hypnotic, Deeply Immersive World War II Chronicle

Dunkirk
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 1 hour 46 minutes
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, Mary Rylance, and Tom Hardy


In 1940, over the course of 10 days from May 26th to June 4, British and Allied forces were pushed to the beaches of Dunkirk, France by German forces during World War II. In its efforts, Britain evacuated nearly 400,000 British and allied forces, narrowly avoiding a conditional surrender to Germany and a game-changing victory for the Nazis. Dunkirk is a harrowing retelling of that event, and a creative reimagining of what a modern war film can be.

Dunkirk is auteur director Christopher Nolan’s tenth feature film and his first contribution to the war film genre. Having built a career and a devotedly passionate, almost pious fandom, Chris Nolan made a movie worthy of his accolades; something I feel he hasn’t done since Inception in 2010. His latest film depicts the Battle of Dunkirk from three fairly distinct perspectives: land, air, and sea. The land segments follow a group of infantrymen played by Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, and Harry Styles, with the air and sea segments following a pilot played by Tom Hardy and a civilian boat vessel captain played by Mark Rylance, respectively. Each of these three perspectives serves to convey the fear, desperation, courage, and determination of a pivotal moment that would ultimately determine the fate of the free world.

Unlike the war films of years past, Dunkirk differentiates itself in its dramatic structure. Recent war films like Hacksaw Ridge (2016) and The Hurt Locker (2008) all revolve around the narrative of a singular character. In Hacksaw Ridge, that singular character was Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield). In The Hurt Locker, that character was staff sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner). In Dunkirk, the event itself is front and center. Sure, there are characters played by prominent actors that we spend the duration with, but we never just “watch” them – that is we don’t ever hear any background exposition on who they are and where they come from. We don’t watch these characters experience this world; we experience this world with the characters.

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Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) oversees the Dunkirk evacuation

One the things I’ve always loved about Christopher Nolan’s films is their use of sound. Once again, composer Hans Zimmer perfectly complements the film with a unique and memorable score. He borrows the ticking clock sound that was used in the film’s first teaser trailer and maintains it through the duration of the film, however never to the point of distraction. In fact, the ticking clock cue cements the urgency and the gravity of the desperate situation. Zimmer’s score lingers in the background and often times blends with the action on-screen. Additionally, the film’s effective use of loudness in its sound design makes this retelling feel as perilous as the real thing. The gunshots are loud. The air whistling from the dive-bombing German planes is deafening. Although this exact experience may be reserved for people seeing the film in IMAX like I did.

In the fairly recent past, Christopher Nolan’s films and I have had a love/hate relationship. On one hand, I truly appreciate the meticulousness of his direction style and the genuine gravitas of his artistic vision as displayed in The Dark Knight (2008) and Inception. But, on the other hand, I can’t deny that the blind, and often time toxic devotion of his fandom has tainted my enjoyment of his later films, specifically The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and Interstellar (2014) – 2 films that I felt, while good, failed to live up to the quality of his prior films. I can confidently say that with Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan has delivered not only his best film in 7 years, but perhaps his best film ever (excluding Memento (2000)).

10/10

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