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Dunkirk – Review

26 Jul

The Dunkirk Evacuation, which took place in late May and early June of 1940, is an event which the late Winston Churchill deemed a “military disaster.” Even with that infamous description attached to it, it has become known as The Miracle at Dunkirk because of the amount of British Allied forces that were saved despite the odds due to bravery from the British Navy, Air Force, and civilians who were all too willing to help. It’s an incredible story and it’s a story that has now been scooped up by film making master Christopher Nolan, who not only succeeds in telling stories, but also sculpting them to feel new, unique, and memorable. Listen, The Dark Knight is a fantastic movie, Inception killed it in the imagination department, and Memento completely reinvented how to tell a simple narrative. That being said, Dunkirk may be Nolan’s masterpiece.

The story of Dunkirk is split up into three separate narratives that become interweaved as the movie goes along. The first story that is introduced is that of a British private named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead). Tommy narrowly escapes Nazi forces and finds himself on the beach with thousands of other British and French soldiers waiting for evacuation. Throughout the next couple of days, Tommy must survive bombings by German planes, submarine attacks on their ships, while also navigating through an environment where everyone is fighting desperately to survive. The next story is that of Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and family friend George (Barry Keoghan) who use their small civilian boat to sail to Dunkirk and rescue whoever they can. Along the way they find a soldier (Cillian Murphy) who’s ship was sunk by the Germans and who is also suffering from extreme post-traumatic stress. Finally, we come to the eyes in the sky. Royal Air Force pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) and his partner take on numerous German bombers in order to protect the civilian ships and the troops on the beach. This becomes a much harder task when his fuel gauge gets destroyed and he has to rely on memory to know how much fuel he has left.

Dunkirk is almost more than a movie. It’s an experience of sight and sound that is above the norm when compared to most of my trips to the theater. It’s almost as if the movie just wrapped around me and didn’t let up until the very last frame. The first shot of the film pulled me in immediately. It feels so sudden and unnatural, but at the same time beautiful. It sets the tone perfectly for the rest of the film. The camera swoops around the skies with the planes and runs along the beaches with the soldiers all while the devastating sound effects complete the audio/visual immersion. I don’t think I’ll be getting the sound of the German planes out of my head anytime soon. Even though that horrifying whine steals the show, the other planes, gunshots, explosions, and ricochets boomed out of the sound system and made me jump a few times. Finally I have to give major credit to Hans Zimmer for his subtle yet intense score that moves with the plot perfectly.

Something that really surprised me about Dunkirk is the way the story is told. Nolan is known to tell intricate stories, and his earlier works like Following and Memento especially play around with narrative structure. While Dunkirk isn’t quite as broken up as Memento, it still has a unique flow to it. The soldiers on the beach have a story that lasts a week, the civilians in the boat span a day, and the pilots span an hour. This really enhances the story because we’ll see something happen through the eyes of one character and then later on in the movie we’ll see it again from a different perspective. This gives the viewer a fuller view of the event as it happened. It’s also just a lot of fun putting the pieces together as the movie goes along. It was a little bit confusing at first, but I got into it pretty quickly. Could the movie have been told in a linear way? Yeah, I’m sure it could have been but I’m also glad it wasn’t.

A complaint I’ve been hearing is that there isn’t enough character development. This kind of confuses me because I never really looked at this movie as being about the characters, but more so about the events that happened on those brutal days and nights in Dunkirk. The characters in this movie serve as archetypes for real soldiers. From the PTSD ridden soldiers to the heroic English civilians, these characters represent many. This doesn’t mean there aren’t some great performances, however. Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, and Cillian Murphy are the real powerhouse performances in this movie, but there wasn’t a shaky actor in the bunch. I really don’t mind not seeing their backstories or what became of them or what their motivations for their actions were, and honestly there just wasn’t time in the narrative to slow down.

Dunkirk is a masterpiece of epic proportions and is quite frankly the best work I’ve seen from Christopher Nolan. This has been a pretty strong summer with the movies I’ve been seeing, but nothing can top this one. If another movie comes along this year that hits me as hard as Dunkirk did, I’d really be surprised. This is a movie that can’t be missed. It tells an incredible story of survival, but it also reworks the tropes of the war genre in ways that I haven’t seen done before. This film is outstanding and I can’t wait to see it again.

Final Grade: A+