Review: Dunkirk (2017)

Dunkirk

Rating

Director

Christopher Nolan

Screenplay

Christopher Nolan

Length

1 h 46 min

Starring

Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard, Lee Armstrong, James Bloor, Barry Keoghan, Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney, Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden

MPAA Rating

PG-13 for intense war experience and some language

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Soundtrack

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Review

Christopher Nolan has been something of a populist fringe director for years. His comic book adaptations and sci-fi spectacles have been technical bonanzas, but whatever their qualities, they’ve all been hobbled by their genre roots. With Dunkirk, Nolan has made a valiant attempt to define himself as more than just a genre director covering the rescue of English troops from the shores of Dunkirk before they can be picked off by German aircraft.

With few familiar names in the cast, Nolan zeroes in on the fear, the apprehension, and the tragedy of those trapped against a superior land force. Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy becomes the audience surrogate for the film, representing all the hope, terror, and weariness of the average soldier. He is the audience’s rallying point throughout the film, a figure whose tragic circumstances highlight the brutality of war from the ground. In the air, the film’s surrogates are Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden as fighter pilots protecting the soldiers on the ground and at sea from the German assault by air.

Rounding out the triumvirate of narrative focal points is Mark Rylance as a soldier’s father who takes his fishing boat across the English Channel to try and rescue as many men as he can. Although he is not officially part of the eventual flotilla of private citizen boats that perform the formal rescue, he embodies the homefront attitude of wanting to do anything to protect their men in harm’s way, of which one is his son.

While various characters enter and exit the drama and become focal points of their own, these three stories help ground the narrative so the audience can best sympathize with the situation. Apart from some parallel storylines that get ahead of and eventually sync up with the narrative, the drama plays out fairly straight forward, following the dramatic events as the soldiers await salvation that none of them are certain is coming. While emotional connection is a challenge in a number of places, a scene on the train near the end of the film provides one of the best emotional catharses Dunkirk has to offer.

Nolan’s screenplay limits dialogue for vast swaths of the film, focusing on brief snippets that present information that cannot be readily seen or felt through mere imagery. It’s here that Nolan does his best work, showcasing how filmmakers can create a sense of presence, place, dread, or any other emotional evocation through visual storytelling. With his vast repertoire of past films, this is the most subtle and daring Nolan has ever been. Those prior films were all very complex ideologically and required a hefty amount of dialogue to get the ideas across. However, with war films, audiences are already innately familiar with the type of story being told, what they should be seeing, feeling, and embodying as a result. This gives Nolan the capability to explore the events in uncommon ways that occasionally remind one favorably of films like All Quiet on the Western Front.

As a screenwriter, Nolan is an inventive fellow, but here his screenplay is less a fully realized film and more of a blueprint from which to work. It gets the various concepts down, but it’s up to Nolan’s passionate and fervent brand of visual storytelling to get everything across in compelling and viscerally engaging ways. The film’s biggest weakness is in the sometimes confusing cross-cutting of events, showing the audience an event that, in the overall timeline of events happens later in the film rather than at the point in which we see it. This does two things, it disorients the audience, which is the bad part, but it also injects action and heroics into situations where things are indeed dire. Were the film made sequentially, it might have felt a bit more barren and lengthy than it does. So, while the disjointed timeline disrupts the audience’s understanding of events, it ultimately fits a purpose even if one that’s not as engaging as it should be.

When you look back at Dunkirk, you’ll see one of the finest directors of spectacle spinning his craft in a fresh and engaging way, finally connecting with all the naysayers who criticized his genre work as being insignificant in comparison to weightier subjects. However, Nolan has always dealt with rich and vibrant concepts, especially hefty ones, while weaving it all into fantastical and unusual environments in order to connect with those who feel that weightier subjects just aren’t for them. Dunkirk can put to rest any questions as to Nolan’s ability to tackle any subject and any genre with fervent flair.

Oscar Prospects

Guarantees: Picture, Original Score, Editing, Cinematography, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing
Probables: Director, Visual Effects
Potentials: Production Design, Costume Design
Unlikelies: Supporting Actor (Mark Rylance), Original Screenplay

Review Written

February 16, 2018

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