The opening scene in Dunkirk, the new film from director Christopher Nolan, follows several British soldiers walking down an abandoned street. Flyers rain down on them. A soldier grabs one and it reads, “We surround you.”
Moments later, the men are hit with gunfire from seemingly every direction.
This scene encapsulates what you’re in for. It’s one of the few quiet moments in Dunkirk because for seemingly the entire running time, you’re on the edge of your seat.
For those unaware of the true story. Dunkirk involved the evacuation of Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France, who were cut off and surrounded by the German army from the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk, France. Nearly 400,000 men sat and waited on that beach desperately seeking any boat to send them across the sea back to England.
British destroyers of the Royal Navy and other large civilian merchant ships were sent in. Eventually, Britain called into service the help of anything that could float including fishing boats, pleasure crafts and yachts.
For this film, Nolan has once again played with time. From Following to Memento to The Prestige, Nolan has always been fascinated with telling stories in a non-linear approach.
Dunkirk has a triptych structure: on the beach with the infantry (Newcomers Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles), the evacuation by the Navy (Cillian Murphy and Mark Rylance) and in the air with Tom Hardy.
Telling the story from three different perspectives allows Nolan to start each segment at a certain point and have them eventually meet somewhere in the middle. But the journey to get there is perilous.
The men on the beach have Germans at their backs, enemy planes from above and a sea doing its very best to kick them out. Whitehead and Styles are among the men and these two are particularly sly in their ability to stay alive. Whether it’s impersonating medical officers, hiding below a dock to wait for the next ship or looking for every available exit, these boys only have one objective: survive.
In the air, Farrier (Hardy) and a fellow pilot are tasked with assisting in the evacuation of Dunkirk by shooting down enemy planes. With IMAX cameras mounted on the side of Spitfire planes, Nolan’s aerial footage is perhaps the best ever put to film.
The sound design and realistic portrayal of planes getting hit by incoming gunfire standout. Nolan is focused on every conceivable detail.
Below the planes are civilians on a suicide mission to assist the soldiers in any way they can. Mr. Dawson (Rylance), his son and another boy head for Dunkirk. The boys have no idea what’s ahead of them, but Dawson’s stoic presence calms them. In one terrific shot, three Spitfires fly over the boat from the rear as the boys nervously wonder of they’re about to be blown out of the water. Without even turning back to look, Dawson knows they’re friendlies just by the sound they make.
With three different perspectives to follow, Nolan creates tension and suspense that rarely lets up for the 106 minute running time. Just when you think you’ve caught your breath on the ground, he cuts back to the air as Farrier hunts down another German plane hellbent on destroying ships below.
The level of tension is heightened even more by Hans Zimmer’s subtle score. A longtime collaborator of Nolan, Zimmer replaces the bombastic tracks he created for Inception and Interstellar with a ticking sound to emphasize how every waking moment is crucial.
If there is one flaw with Dunkirk, it’s the character development. There is very little dialogue in this film and other than perhaps Dawson, no character is fleshed out in any way. This creates an interesting dichotomy where Nolan has his audience right in the action at every turn, but distances us from the characters involved in the action.
This aspect of the story may turn some people off resulting in them not caring about the characters because they haven’t had any time to invest in them. But there is literally no time. No time to talk, no time to relax and no time to waste.
I had some trepidation heading into Dunkirk due to the film’s PG-13 rating. How can someone portray a violent and horrific event in our history without the presence of blood and bodily injury?
Somehow, Nolan pulls it off. He uses the Spielberg Jaws approach of leaving terror and violence up to our own imagination. One iconic shot shows soldiers sitting on a pier. You hear planes approaching and in beautiful and terrifying unison, they all look up in horror and quickly duck for cover.
Another scene involves men hiding in the hull of a boat waiting for the tide to come in so they can drift out to sea. As they sit there, gunfire rips through the hull one-by-one. They have to make a choice: Cover up the holes as water breaches the hull or avoid gunfire and risk drowning.
Nolan does something interesting with the enemy. He never shows the Germans up close. But they’re there, lurking. Yet another level of dread to add to an already visceral experience.
Few movies have given me goosebumps quite like this one. But not just the bad kind. A scene near the end involving a plane basically gliding through the air without any fuel as it picks off as many Germans as it can left me breathless.
Dunkirk is an unequivocal masterpiece by a masterful filmmaker. It is perhaps the greatest war film since Saving Private Ryan and I left the theater thinking, “I have to see this again immediately.” I can’t remember the last time I felt that way about a movie.