A visceral sensation from start to finish, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk delivers the experience that 3D has promised to for so many years. Immensely immersive, Dunkirk envelopes you in its perfectly orchestrated chaos from the very first moments, surrounding you with the sights and sounds of war-torn Dunkirk as soldiers scurry for safety, hugging you in a sickly embrace of unease while Hans Zimmers’ sublimely nerve-inducing score tears at your composure. Hypnotic in its ability to put you on edge and suck you headfirst into the screen, Nolan’s sure-to-be Oscar juggernaut forces you to scour every inch of the screen for danger and refuses to relent for but a moment. A layered triptych that integrates three disparate narratives, all working on their own timelines, Dunkirk is nothing short of a verifiable masterstroke of cinematic construction and the lauded director’s most artistic and impassioned vision yet.
Clear-eyed but complexly compiled, Dunkirk accounts for the events that transpired in May of 1940, where German forces tightened the noose on roughly 400,000 “doomed” Allied troops; trapped in a pincher move with their backs to the sea; German planes buzzing overhead, picking off shell-shocked soldiers like “fish in a barrel”; bodies littering the beach with no escape in sight. Dunkirk is 107 minutes of genuine adrenaline that begins as Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) flees. Tommy, a little-experienced, nobody private rightfully fearing for his life, is one of many bodies we follow through the madness of Dunkirk and is the primary POV for what occurs on the ground.
In what was surely an incredibly unwieldy task for crack editor Lee Smith (whose work here is nothing short of genius), Nolan divides Dunkirk’s story into thirds with one portion taking place on land, one in the sea and one overhead in the skies. Over the course of one week, we follow Tommy as he befriends a French soldier impersonating a Brit (Aneurin Barnard) – British naval forces remained adamant that the English and only the English were to be evacuated – and the two attempt to escape the bombed out beachfront of Dunkirk by any means necessary. On the shores of their homeland, a gallant Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) sets out to sea with son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and helping hand George (Barry Keoghan), civilian sea men who chart a course to rescue the countless boys stranded in the desperate war zone. Their journey takes place over a single day and things take an unexpected turn when they come across a worse-for-wear shipwrecked lone survivor (Cillian Murphy) who has his own cross to bear.
Zooming overhead, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) have their narrative constrained to but an hour as they fend off German fighter planes and bombers in their Spitfires. Nolan marries the three timelines together with the expertise of a seasoned orchestrator, moving between the stories in such a way that tension is always building and the conflating acceleration of time never presents any continuum issues.
The airborne sequences are nothing short of ridiculously captivating, and feature some of the best dog fighting ever put to film, aided by aerial cinematography from Hoyte van Hoytema that’s both gorgeous and enthralling, taking full advantage of Nolan’s obsession for IMAX in wide shots of cloudy French skies. Nail-bitingly simple, the soaring shots live and die by their composition and Nolan and Hoytema figure a way to make the shots in the air feel both graceful and clunky; the combination of archaic instruments operated by seasoned maestros.
When we’re sharing the cockpit with Farrier, gunning at enemy gliders where the lives of hundreds hang in the balance, the combat feels tactical and improbable, like sitting behind a flight stick of an outdated PC game gunning for the Death Star’s minute port. From the ground though, the planes are harbingers of terror. They float in the air, whirling engines inviting squeals of terror aground. Menacing angels of death that rip the sky and plow the earth with bombs. Zimmers score elevates the tension to dangerous heights while the sound design keeps us deadlocked in place, heart rates rising to discomforting levels. At sea, Nolan immerses us in other simple dangers. H2O has not felt so deadly since James Cameron’s Titanic, with multiple scenes spent crushed by the impending seas, pummeling would-be escapees captive to sinking ships.
Hardy, easily the most famous actor of the troop, spends another of Nolan’s film obscured by a gas mask. Emoting through the eyeholes of his goggles, he is Nolan’s answer to outstanding criticism of being “emotionless”. Even without most of a face, he invests us in the journey of one man’s heroism among many. He is Nolan seeing the forest and the trees. Because Dunkirk is the epitome of an ensemble piece, with no particular character standing out as the “lead” so much as an integral part to a larger whole. And just as the war effort was won by collective, Dunkirk, though it doesn’t find the need to dive into the nitty gritty of any one particular character, reveals a great deal through investigating the broad themes of war and man and how the two interact. What war does to man; how it can raise him to great heights to drown him in cowardice and how the two are not necessarily in conflict – is Nolan’s chief preoccupation.
Conversely, Dunkirk is about heroism and the different forms that heroism can take. Sometimes heroism is sacrifice. Sometimes it is merely survival. Each of Dunkirk‘s three tales harmonize with one another to bring these themes to light, staging moments of compassionate amidst outbursts of selfishness or blind fear. That it all coalesces into one of the most acutely edited and sharply written pieces of war fiction in existence – there is no doubt in my mind that Dunkirk will deservedly receive a pile of awards, most notably for its writing and editing – speaks to how clean and effective the finished product is.
Although the spoken dialogue is sparse, Nolan’s screenplay displays a master at work. As has sometimes been his shortcoming, Nolan doesn’t get bogged down in heavy mechanics (Interstellar, Inception, Dark Knight) but instead lets the nuance and structure tell his story. How he brings the three disparate stories to a head is simply put fantastic and makes for one of the finest pieces of structural acumen displayed this century. A phenom of structure, Nolan has finally allowed himself to not overwrite. Dunkirk has all the heady tinkering of Memento and Inception but displays even more artistic grace. This is a director confident in his visual storytelling, one who doesn’t feel the need to over-exposition to his audience.
The audacity to simply imagine Dunkirk as a complete work of art is admirable in itself but the way that Nolan and company have brought it to life, complete with awe-inspiring emotional swells, perfectly executed set pieces and soul-rending technical accomplishments across the board, makes for a slice of cinema not soon to be forgotten. A heart-pounding apocalyptic meditation on man and war that engages equally with the head and the heart, Dunkirk is a consolidation of screenwriting excellence and directorial prowess that shows a master on top of his game.
CONCLUSION: Sure to leave you visibly shell-shocked, ‘Dunkirk’ is an outstanding war epic that brings together three tales of survival amidst chaos in such briskly edited, extraordinarily structured fashion that you may find yourself not breathing for its entire 108 minute runtime. An Oscar powerhouse-in-the-making, Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s most artistic and soulful effort yet and one of the 21st century’s absolute best war films.