Starring: Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy
Directed by: Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight”)
Written by: Christopher Nolan (“Inception”)
As one of the most highly regarded filmmakers of the modern era, director Christopher Nolan’s ambition is both his biggest strength and his greatest weakness. With his ambition, Nolan conceptualized “Inception,” which explored the world of dreams and consciousness, creating an entire universe filled with painstakingly detailed ideas and a dazzling visual landscape to match. His ambition has also occasionally stifled him, such as with “Interstellar,” a generally good movie that gets far too bogged down with a convoluted third act to make any lasting impact. With his latest film, “Dunkirk,” Nolan has taken historical subject matter and while staying ambitious in certain ways, created his most restrained film yet. The results, like most of Nolan’s work, are spectacular.
Telling the story of the largest retreat in military history from allied forces in World War II, the film unfolds with a trio of timelines, one taking place by land over a week span, one by sea over a day span, and one by air over an hour span. It is the most noticeable narrative quality, evoking Nolan’s non-linear storytelling from “Memento,” though not nearly as radical. The results of this narrative structure pay off immensely. Through this device, Nolan is not only able to shift in and out between different perspectives, but he is able to create an immense amount of tension. Nail-biting moments may begin over one timeline and the audience not see a resolution until the timelines intersect. It’s the type of higher level thinking that Nolan has made his signature and really allows him to put a new perspective on a war movie.
While none may stand out, every one of the timelines are solid in their own right and serve their purpose. The land segments, bolstered by unknown actor Fionn Whitehead as Tommy are really able to show the desperation of the soldiers trapped at Dunkirk. Even as he tries to sneak his way just to survive, the soldiers seem to be foiled at every turn as sitting ducks to the enemy. With the sea segments, Nolan is able to use fantastic actor Mark Rylance to display the courage of a regular citizen insisting on taking his own boat rather than having it be commandeered to rescue troops. Finally, with the air segments, Nolan utilizes the films most notable actor, Tom Hardy, to display the heroism from fighter pilots who were some of the only protection the soldiers had.
From a visual standpoint, Nolan has created another masterpiece. The air segments feature impressive aerial shots, especially from cameras mounted on planes that feature the vast oceans below. Even on regular screens (the film did not screen for critics on the much lauded 70mm IMAX), the scope of “Dunkirk” is massive. But beyond just visual marvels and beautiful constructed shots, the audio of “Dunkirk” is wildly immersive. Gunshots in the opening segment and the unexpected ones throughout the film are jolting, creating visceral intensity and tension. There is also an unsettlingly taut score from Hans Zimmer, doing his best work in years. Make no mistake, “Dunkirk” is loud, but with the chaos going on around, it feels like a necessity.
Perhaps as a result of the timeline jumps, leaving characters in one place and picking up with others, the only thing that “Dunkirk” truly feels like its missing is stronger emotional ties to its characters. Still, it can’t help but feel like a nitpick when the movie, despite having traditional heroes to really latch onto, still generates plenty of emotion. With “Dunkirk,” Nolan has created nothing less than a cinematic marvel. It’s visually breathtaking, ambitious and stirring. In other words, it’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from Christopher Nolan.