The release of a Christopher Nolan film has become nothing short of an event. There are very few directors working today who command such respect, but ever since he made it big with “Batman Begins” (while many others knew him well before that for his brilliant “Memento”), audiences have anxiously awaited whatever project he has chosen to do next. Because of his incredible clout, not only have we gotten the greatest set of comic book films in cinematic history (“The Dark Knight Trilogy”), but also a number of other unforgettable works like “The Prestige,” “Inception” (his only film to date that’s been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar), and “Interstellar” (an ambitious project that didn’t quite hit the heights it aimed for, but which still provided a unique experience). Now he has set his sights on something completely different, a project grounded in history that just might be his most ambitious venture yet.
“Dunkirk” tells the true story of British and French soldiers desperately trying to escape the beaches of Dunkirk after having been trapped there by the Germans during WWII. Told from three different points of view, we begin on The Mole where a young soldier by the name of Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is trying to find any way out that he can, while Commander Bolton (Sir Kenneth Branagh) attempts to arrange safe passage for all of the men.
On The Sea, we learn that civilian boats have been activated to help evacuate the troops. One of these is captained by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), who is joined by his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a young boy named George (Barry Keoghan). On their journey, they rescue a soldier (Cillian Murphy) whose ship has been torpedoed by a U-Boat. Their trip becomes more complicated when the shell-shocked soldier demands that they return to England instead of heading straight into danger.
Finally, we take to The Air where we follow Spitfire pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), along with their squadron leader, as they support the troops from high above. Between constantly facing bouts with enemy aircraft and having to keep a close eye on their fuel, they are in constant danger every second they’re in the air. All three of these POVs combine to reveal an incredible story of brave men in a desperate situation.
First and foremost, the biggest takeaway from Nolan’s latest opus is the technical brilliance on display. As usual, Nolan’s direction is top-notch, somehow bringing together the carnage, confusion, desperation, heroism, and terror into a film that’s meant to be a visual and visceral experience. The film may have been grounded in reality, but that didn’t make bringing it to life any easier than a grand sci-fi epic. As usual, he insisted upon using a lot of practical effects, and as usual, they look all the more stunning simply because they are real. But beyond the look, the film is meant to be an immersive experience, with Hoyt von Hoytema’s gorgeous cinematography, Nathan Crowley’s production design, Lee Smith’s editing, and the extensive work from the sound team doing incredible wonders to achieve it. From a technical perspective, there is simply no fault that can be placed on the film.
However, looking on the other side of the coin, we find that there are just a couple of drawbacks with the narratives and the characters. Apparently Nolan always meant for there to be no backstory for the characters so that the film wouldn’t get bogged down, and therefore keep you “in the moment.” But what’s good for creating an “in the moment” sensation is not necessarily good for creating memorable characters that the audience is going to sympathize with. A similar criticism can be made of the narratives, which, due to a lack of characterization, aren’t quite as compelling or involving as they should have been.
This is not to say that the narratives are bad, or that the characters are entirely unengaging, for the intense experience does much to make up for what’s missing in the intriguingly-structured stories and the assortment of soldiers/civilians who are trying to survive/help. That being said, one can’t help but imagine how much more immersive the film would have been had Nolan allowed the characters to have at least some backstory or develop a little further as the stories progressed (after all, these are fictional characters, so how fleshed-out they were was pretty much in his hands). With a little more work, the film could have been firing on all cylinders, instead of having half of them fire and the other half sputtering along.
Taking the exceptional pieces with the parts that could have used a little improvement, “Dunkirk” makes for a fine war picture. It may not be the return to greatness that many were hoping for from Nolan after the slightly disappointing “Interstellar,” but his skills as a director are on magnificent display here, skills that could very well finally earn him that ever-elusive Oscar nomination for Best Director (something he should have gotten at least twice by now). On top of that, the magnificent cast, which includes Sir Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and Fionn Whitehead, do a great job with what they’re given. The fact that they were purposely not given very much even makes it somewhat more impressive. As mentioned, the film was always meant to be more of an experience than anything else, and I think it’s safe to say that at least as far as that objective goes, it succeeds on a grand scale. 3/4 stars.