PG-13 | 1h 46min | Action, Drama, History | 21 July 2017 (USA)
Go ahead and put “Dunkirk” in the same class as “Apocalypse Now,” “Platoon,” “Saving Private Ryan,” and “Braveheart.” The only difference is that those four premiere war movies contain brief flashes of levity and even fun, whereas “Dunkirk” is one long, sustained note of grim melancholy.
This is not to warn you off—Christopher Nolan’s tour de force film is a must-see, a 2017 summer blockbuster, and definitely one of the best war movies ever made. You just can’t really call it entertainment, per se.
Should a war movie entertain? “Dunkirk” is more about being utterly transported (especially by the IMAX version) into a dire situation, and understanding viscerally why war is hell. This is accomplished with almost no gore or excessive violence—but there is a massive sense of dread. A most excellent dread. You’ll come away feeling you learned something, or at least experienced something real, if partially fictional.
Rock and a Hard Place
It’s 1940, early June, on the beaches of Dunkirk, northern France. Approximately 400,000 allied British and French troops are trapped by the sea on one side and the Nazis on the other.
They huddle on “the mole,” a giant concrete pier, in dire need of evacuation back to Britain, as Nazi psych-warfare pamphlets rain down from the sky, sneering that they’re basically all “fish in a barrel,” ripe for imminent shooting and bombing.
War is often a lot of hurry-up-and-wait, and here that’s portrayed to devastating effect—thousands of men, numb and in various states of post-traumatic stress disorder, with nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide.
The tale is told from three different perspectives—a SEAL perspective, if you will: stories from the sea, air, and land.
Sea: The British military requisitioned civilian boats to make the channel-crossing day-trip to France, pack them to the gills with soldiers, and hightail it home. The Battle of Britain was next on the Nazi agenda, after all.
This sea story is of one Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), who owns a recreational boat but decides to captain it himself, bringing along his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Pete’s buddy George (Barry Keoghan).
During their channel navigation, they rescue a stranded, profoundly shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) hunkered atop a sinking destroyer. Problem is, when the soldier finds out they’re headed back to France to pick up more men, the situation becomes unhinged.
Air: Three British Spitfire pilots, flying in tight formation across the channel, engaging Nazi Messerschmitts in some of the best aerial dogfight scenes (albeit propeller-driven and subsonic) since “Top Gun.”
Tom Hardy as Royal Air Force pilot Farrier is heroic and stoic in the grand aviator tradition of complete coolness under fire. When his fuel gauge is shot out, he improvises (with chalk-scribbled calculations) his fuel-supply check, then gets back to the business of being an apex hunter/killer of Nazi pilots.
It’s a masterful and “mask-erful” turn. Hardy already displayed his ability to act straight through a huge mask in Nolan’s “The Dark Night Rises,” and here he reprises that ability by projecting a clear and subtle range of emotions from behind a pilot’s oxygen mask.
Land: Newcomer Fionn Whitehead plays British army private Tommy (a nice wordplay on his name—British soldiers were known as “Tommy”).
He’s largely silent, thereby functioning as our emotional avatar, putting us right in the action through his eyes and ears, representing the men on the ground.
Tommy is his squadron’s sole survivor. He races through swarms of bullets while fleeing the town of Dunkirk, to the mole, where he eventually ends up within earshot of a British commander (Kenneth Branagh) in conversation, explaining why English help may not be ultimately forthcoming.
No Words Can Describe It
It’s all action, few words, and real basic. The emotional mule-kick of this movie lies in the timing, pacing, and above all, the sound effects and soundtrack, courtesy of world-class film composer Hans Zimmer. Expect Oscars in these two categories.
Zimmer captures the sound of a droning warplane engine, then reproduces it as an instrument unto itself—notes of warplane; fugue by Messerschmitt, if you will. The realism of gunfire sound went up a notch with 1995’s “Heat,” but Nolan takes rifle-round concussive vehemence, not to mention bombs tearing up the beach, to a new level.
The continuously escalating tension of the film has to do, in part, with recurring series of repetitive eighth notes on various instruments—for example, a pizzicato, double-stopping violin that starts slowly and increases in speed like a locomotive. It’s unbelievably effective in turning up the dread-dial; it puts you right there.
In addition to this, Nolan and Zimmer add a smattering of almost horror-genre sound effect eerieness. Just as some of the velociraptor vocalizations in “Jurassic Park” had elements of human groaning, the dive-bombing planes and whistling bombs are accompanied by an earsplitting human/banshee shriek that will stand your hair on end.
It’s hard to categorize “Dunkirk.” Grand piece of art? Or virtuoso nail-bite fest? It’s both. While decidedly nerve-wracking and blood-pressure raising, you’ll be glad you subjected yourself to the discomfort.
One does wish, at times, for a tiny bit of levity, a bit of fun in this epic tale. Even the great, gray, grim “Schindler’s List” had scenes more in common with “Keystone Kops” than Greek tragedy. A smidgen of comedy only serves to underscore the tragedy more effectively.
In the end, it’s Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson who sets an example of compassion in the face of extreme violence, and who models the fact that it is the act of looking within, to find the cause of any human war, that provides hope for humanity.
Between Rylance’s, Hardy’s, and Branaugh’s performances, heroism abounds. “Dunkirk” pays tribute to all who collectively saved the planet from Third Reich domination.
Film Review: ‘Dunkirk’
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Harry Styles
Running Time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Release Date: July 21
Rated 4.5 stars out of 5