Christopher Nolan has built his auteur rep with big concepts and complex stories. And though his latest movie “Dunkirk” is no small feat, it’s unlike anything he’s made yet in his career.
Nolan delivers a war story filled with pulse-pounding thrills and emotionally powerful performances. The film shows off his mastery, but is also extremely intimate — despite being shot on 70mm with an IMAX camera.
To get your money’s worth, you should definitely find the largest screen near you to see its incredible photography, but the story itself is very simple and very sparse on dialogue.
The movie looks at the evacuation of Allied forces off the beach in Dunkirk, France during World War II. To tell that story, Nolan looks at the event from land, air, and sea.
The land portion, titled “The Mole” (referring to the massive stone breakwater at Dunkirk), shows close to 400,000 British soldiers patiently waiting over a week for destroyers to come ashore and pick them all up. But like monsters coming from the sky, German bombers periodically show up and bomb the terrified soldiers on the beach. All they can do is duck and hope to survive.
For “The Air” storyline, the British air force assigns three Spitfire aircraft to fly the one-hour journey to Dunkirk to try and fight off the bombers. Lastly in “The Sea,” civilian boats from the UK travel the day’s journey to Dunkirk to assist in the evacuation.
All three stories have their own individual drama, but Nolan, along with his longtime editor Lee Smith, masterfully have them all converge by the end of the movie. It’s a thrilling conclusion that only the refined skill and originality of the guy who made “Memento” can pull off.
Much of the movie is told through the perspective of Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead), who attempts numerous times to try to get off the beach, only to find his way back to it. Saying very little, we follow his movements with fellow solider Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and later Alex (Harry Styles, in an impressive acting debut), who they save from a sinking destroyer that has been hit by a German bomb.
Mark Rylance plays one of the civilian boat captains, Cillian Murphy is an unnamed solider Rylance’s boat picks up on the way to Dunkirk, and Tom Hardy plays one of the Spitfire pilots, Farrier. Though Nolan gives Hardy only a handful of lines, it’s also the hero role. Trust me, you’ll be thinking about Hardy’s performance long after you leave the theater.
Though the obvious comparisons that come up when watching “Dunkirk” are past epics like the gritty “Saving Private Ryan” and “Atonement,” which has the incredible five-minute single shot of the Allied forces at Dunkirk, I couldn’t stop thinking about the little-seen 1975 D-Day movie “Overlord,” by director Stuart Cooper.
Perhaps the comparison comes because Cooper’s movie is also an intimate story about a young soldier’s experience at an epic war moment, but also “Overlord” had incredible dogfight stock footage from the war. It gave the movie an authenticity and exhilarating feel that few war movies have at that budget level. However, Nolan’s dogfight sequences surpasses most in authentic feel. They just give you chills.
It might be the size of the screen I saw it on that just engulfed me into the story, or the richness of a movie shot on film projected at that size (most are done digitally nowadays, or projected digitally), but there’s a feel of being right there in the action throughout the movie. More than any other Nolan movie. It also helps that there are sequences in the movie when Nolan uses camera angles that you’ve never seen him pull off in a movie before. And the icing on all this is the incredible score by Hans Zimmer. The ticking clock motif he created is a great reminder that time is on no one’s side in this movie.
“Dunkirk” opens in theaters on Friday.