Review by J.T. Johnson
Writer and director Christopher Nolan returns to the big screen with a war epic like no other. As he did with other well known genres, Nolan has turned the World War II movie on its head and given us something more powerful than we’ve seen in most other films about this war or any other war for that matter. One of those changes is simply telling a story where our heroes are simply trying to escape to fight another day instead of winning the battle at hand.
Another twist from the norm is not making it about the Americans. This is a story about the Dunkirk evacuation, a pivotal moment in the war for Britain and the allies at large. Had Dunkirk fallen, most of Britain’s army would have been destroyed and the Nazis might have invaded Europe before the U.S. could have even had a chance to enter the war.
The movie is told from three perspectives at three different times. One is from the land, where we follow the soldiers that are currently surrounded on all sides by the Germans. They don’t know if anybody will or even can come and help them escape. All they can really do is wait while just a few meager boats carry off as many of the 400,000 troops as they can.
In the air, three Spitfires from the Royal Air Force cruise overhead, trying to fend off any fighters and bombers in the area. They need to be careful, though, because fuel is tight and they may soon have to leave the area themselves. Then, out at sea, the civilian navy, consisting of several smaller vessels such as fishing and sail boats, set out for Dunkirk to save as many soldiers as they can.
The three stories start at different times, but they eventually collide and we even see a few of the same scenes from different perspectives, each one just as thrilling as the last. Nolan makes the events of the evacuation the star of the movie. We don’t even know many of the names of the characters we are following. We just know that they are all in this terrible situation together and Nolan’s focus on the events rather than the characters is another thing that sets this film apart from the rest of the pack.
Nolan also doesn’t fall into the trap of having his characters dive off into melodramatic speeches about what the war is or what the war represents or what the characters will do when the war is finally ends. That trap has all but killed other generic war films and Nolan uses his brilliant visuals to tell the tale instead.
Almost everything in this film is real. At sea, Nolan used real boats, some of which were actually used during the real evacuation. In the air, he used the aircrafts of the time to film the movie’s thrilling aerial battles. On the land, he used thousands of extras to convincingly show us that this is almost an entire army that could be killed at any moment.
The actors performing in the movie are pitch-perfect as well. These are soldiers that just want to get away from Dunkirk so that they can rest and fight another day. They are tired, wet, and cold and they simply want to go home. Considering that the film doesn’t focus on any one character at a time, these actors still manage to make you care for them and you want to see the evacuation succeed.
Nolan also teamed with Hans Zimmer once again to create a beautiful score that helps establish the bleak and claustrophobic situations that the soldiers find themselves in. It is slow and subtle on the land as the soldiers find themselves waiting for rescue while on the sea, things are even quieter as the boats make their way to Dunkirk. In the air, the composer kicks it up a notch to match the heightened pitch of the aerial battles. Once again, Zimmer delivers for his friend Nolan.
This movie is nothing short of spectacular. I’ll admit, the nonlinear storytelling may be a bit confusing at first, but that is only a small quibble to the otherwise spectacular film that nolan has managed to create with this movie. The race for the best film of 2017 is definitely still on!