Year: 2017
Director(s): Christopher Nolan
Writer(s): Christopher Nolan
Region of Origin: US, UK

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rating: PG-13
65mm, Color, 106 mins

Synopsis: Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France are surrounded by the German army and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II. (Source)

Out of the fire and into the frying pan. In a nutshell, that’s director Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Dunkirk. Whereas Nolan’s past work has relied on high concept trickery and a central mystery, his latest thrives and feeds off the most basic of human instincts – survival. Allowing form to follow function, the film is above all an experience, doing away with complicated narratives and dropping us deep into the middle of a naval evacuation spanning land, air and sea. By putting us in the thick of it, Nolan has created a subversive war film, one where mere survival is considered winning and in which most of his combatants (mostly kids and weary young men) don’t have a single moment of respite. This no frills, no escape approach is suffocating and thrilling from the first frame to the last, showcasing Nolan’s deft direction behind the camera, even if it does at times feel a little one-note.

The film picks up sometime into WW2, after Nazi Germany had occupied France and pushed thousands of Allied soldiers towards the seaside city of Dunkirk. With thousands stuck between enemy territory and a sea which left them vulnerable to attack, forces come to aid the defenseless soldiers, amounting to a massive evacuation that saved many but at great cost. This film focuses on three major areas and groups caught in the midst of Dunkirk’s miracle. On land, British private Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) schemes to find his way on a ship, only to find himself in a myriad of failed escape attempts. On sea, a civilian named Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) acts on his own volition, taking his private boat, son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and teenage hand George (Barry Keoghan) across waters towards Dunkirk, hoping to do his part despite imminent danger. Lastly, on air, three Spitfire pilots (including one played by Tom Hardy) provide air support to troops waiting on Dunkirk’s shores, adapting to unforeseen mechanical malfunctions and a constant hail of enemy gunfire. Together, these three stories create a triptych which converges in powerful and unexpected ways.

Most notably, for the first time in a long time, Nolan has gone small despite the enormity of his setting. Sure, the story’s backdrop is huge, but in fracturing his narrative into three intimate perspectives (ones in which time operates differently) he finds an intimacy that resounds more than overt spectacle or an obvious, sprawling battlefield. After all, the battlefield that these soldiers navigate is their own minds, continually tested in terms of integrity and resolve, with two-thirds of the film’s characters never firing a single weapon. This is a war film where its combatants are always at a disadvantage, where they aren’t fighting a flesh-and-blood enemy directly, but uncontrollable circumstance. All of this helps to redefine heroism, whether its how the war is viewed by those left at home, or the fast decisions that have to be made on a sinking ship. Given Nolan’s smart approach, it’s the quiet moments of humanity that punch through the ticking time bomb of a plot – a moment of mercy to ease a weary soldier’s mind, a word of support, a pilot silently gliding to his demise or a moment of solidarity towards a foreigner all feel larger than flashy spectacle.

For most of its runtime, the cast and performance is merely there to immerse us into Nolan’s theatre of war. A few characters don’t have names, and though there isn’t much character development, fleeting moments of humanity seep through thanks to its cast. Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy brings a youthful vibrance to the affair. Harry Styles plays a fellow private who tests the former. If there are a few performances that stand out, they belong to Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson, Cillian Murphy’s Shivering Soldier and Tom Hardy’s Farrier. The story really clicks through these three, each offering wholly different textures and driving home the film’s emotion, heroism, struggle and fear in gripping ways.

Ultimately, Dunkirk is a bold, unexpected film, one that shows Nolan scaling back his aesthetic and benefiting from it. He’s crafted a film of technical precision, a wild ride that offers empathy and heroism without having to over explain things. In that sense, this is as primal as you can get for a war film, eschewing embellished poetry for gritty, unglamorized realism and pure, visual storytelling unmoored from the burden of typical Hollywood exposition. The film’s simplicity is really its greatest weapon, letting its characters’ action, rather than talking carry all the heavy lifting and emotion. As the film is at 200% the entire time, it does get a bit monotonous towards the middle, but Nolan has no problem tying it all together by the third act, dragging us tooth and nail through one of the most immersive cinematic experiences of the year. Dunkirk takes us to the razor’s edge and back, and when we return, we’ve gained a harrowing appreciation of how complex war can be from those caught in the middle of it.

SG