Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is one of the best war movies I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a pure masterclass of filmmaking and stands as a prime example of show-don’t-tell. While it feels like almost every other Christopher Nolan film in its thoughtful themes and nonlinear story, Dunkirk is elevated by intense realism. The movie never stops building tension from the first frame, and film earns it’s final shot.
The biggest thing that I will say about Dunkirk is that there is not a single shot wasted. Every moment felt like it was there for a reason. The film is told from three different perspectives. The Mole, the land area, is shown for the duration of a week in the film. Here, soldiers such as Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy are stranded at the beach and are trying to escape impending doom as the German army surrounds them. All these soldiers want to do is go home, and they would do anything to make that happen. Tommy and his friend Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) attempt to sneak behind their officers Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy). However, enemy forces keep preventing them from getting off the land. The second chapter, titled “The Sea,” takes the perspective of a family of civilians who are tasked with rescuing as many lives on Dunkirk as they can. These are ordinary people suddenly thrust into the world of war with only one job to do: save these men. The main man here is Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and he has help from his two sons, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and George (Barry Keoghan). The third chapter, titled “The Air,” focuses on the battle above one hour before the ending. Here we see Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) soar through the sky in an intense dogfight with two goals in mind: destroy the enemies and keep the rescue ships afloat. The whole story is told in a nonlinear fashion, but this choice allows the film to create more depth than a normal war movie would.
If this film were told chronologically, we would not have gotten nearly as much depth as we did. Tom Hardy’s big epic battle would be a maximum of five minutes, the soldiers would spend most of the time sitting idly waiting for someone to arrive, and the sailers would be introduced in the third act. Even though Dunkirk is told out of order, the three act structure still applies here. The first act is all about the start of multiple journeys – Tommy is starting to figure out where to go, Mr. Dawson and his family are starting to leave for Dunkirk, and Farrier and Collins are prepping for the dogfight of their lives. The film builds these different perspectives from there in true Nolan fashion as we are forced to keep guessing while we cling on to the edge of our seats. The film makes it very clear that there is no time to rest. In a typical war movie, there’s always that scene in which the main characters sit down and talk about their lives, and that’s usually where we’re supposed to connect and sympathize with our heroes. However, the movie knows that there is no time to waste when German forces are on both the land and in the sky. Even when characters are sitting, the film works with such a breakneck pace that even that feels really intense because these characters are so terrified of what’s to come. It’s so grounded in this utter sense of realism even though the characters are all fictional that it doesn’t want to give you that sense of relief. When the characters are in that moment, they have to keep moving to survive.
This is where the film truly excels. This lack of time to take a breath and mellow down works to the film’s advantage because it allows us as audience members to know the value of just a split second of silence and peace. I think Nolan may want us to feel what it’s like to just take a moment and experience peace after this whole experience. A lot of the film’s rising tension comes from Hans Zimmer’s phenomenal score. I cannot praise this soundtrack enough for blending so seamlessly with the movie that it actually elevated the script and added more context between the lines. Yeah, when you listen to it separately, the soundtrack just sounds like a lot of noise, but in the film, this noise represents the constant peril that our heroes are in. For just pure immersion, both Nolan and Zimmer should definitely be nominated for plenty of awards next year.
The only slight problem I had with this movie that kept me from pushing it to a perfect score was that I wished the main soldier characters were a little more fleshed out. The actors are amazing in that they don’t even need lines to convey what they are feeling because their faces say it all, but I wished Tommy actually spoke a little more so I can connect with him because I would consider him to be the main character of the movie. Other than that, Dunkirk is a groundbreaking film that transcends the war movie genre on many levels with it’s wonderful nonlinear design and Nolan’s trademark directorial and storytelling flairs.
If you are going to watch Dunkirk, I recommend you see the IMAX version. Nolan actually shot 75% of the movie with an IMAX camera, which is amazing considering the camera’s massive size and difficulty of mobility. IMAX actually does make a noticeable difference since they are taller in order to capture more in a frame. I noticed the shift between IMAX and 70mm shots mainly because the 70mm shots looked more digital. There seemed to be a lot more done in post production on the 70mm shots since I just thought that 25% of the film looked more glossy. Maybe it’s just me, but that’s what I felt. That’s not a hinderance on the movie at all, it’s just something I noticed.
Overall, I’d say Dunkirk is one of the best Christopher Nolan movies so far. While I don’t think the film as a whole is as great as The Dark Knight, Inception, Memento, or The Prestige simply because those films are pretty much perfect in my book, I think Nolan should definitely look forward to this coming awards season. It has some of the most immersive scenes I’ve ever seen in a war movie, a phenomenal method of storytelling, and some of the best sound design and use of a score I’ve seen in a movie in recent memory. On a scale of one to ten, I’m going to go ahead and give Dunkirk a 9.5.
That is my review for Dunkirk! What do you think about the movie? Do you agree or disagree? Do you think I should have mentioned something? If so, feel free to let me know in the comments section! Thanks!