2017. Directed by Christopher Nolan.
One of the first things that becomes clear, seconds into Christopher Nolan’s audacious thriller Dunkirk is that it is not a conventional war picture. It may not even technically be a member of the genre. Regardless, Dunkirk is Nolan’s crowning achievement. A ferocious, tightly constructed tribute to one of the greatest acts of national heroism in the history of mankind. Bordering on horror at times while exploring the darker side of survival and the effects of trauma, Nolan commands a cinematic arsenal in a symphony of destruction, balancing a pulse raising score, harrowing cinematography, and unparalleled practical effects. These combine to form a living prison around the audience, forcing them to inhabit the souls of the combatants, both their acts of unthinkable courage and their primal need to survive at all costs.
400,000 allied soldiers are stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. What follows is a nonlinear recounting of the rescue operation that inspired the world to fight back against inhuman darkness. The point of view is split between the soldiers on the beach, civilians mounting a rescue effort by sea, and the Royal Air Force pilots protecting the operation. Nolan’s script is a showcase on minimalist storytelling, to the point that Dunkirk often feels like a silent film homage and this only furthers the oppressive feeling that pervades every frame. There are no Nazis present on the screen; they are wraiths coming to reap the souls of the stranded. There is no respite, no sanctuary, and from the first ear bursting gunshots, the film drops any sense of conformity with its predecessors.
Some have commented on the film’s distinct lack of exposition and character development; however the lack of focus on a singular “hero” is what allows Nolan’s vision to truly shine. Who these people were is not of interest to the master auteur, it is the sum of masses that is on display. It would be unfair, however, to ignore the work of Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance. Both of these talented performers have scenes that are so emotionally gripping, they manage to imprint on the viewer, despite the absolute bravura of everything else that is happening around them. This was a day where men made the ultimate sacrifice for the many and where boys became men against their father’s wishes.
Hans Zimmer, who will hopefully garner awards gold this season, has created the best score of his prolific career. Emulating the ticking doomsday panic that afflicts the soldiers, his ominous notes are relentless, taking the narrative into the depths of despair, only to then deliver the proceedings into hope. The sound design is impeccable. The viewer is there, on the beach when bombs cascade across the sounds, in the surf when ignited oil snatches away all hope of escape, and in the sky, where split second decisions decide the fate of thousands. This is a film that requires IMAX viewing, if possible. It is not only the reason these titanic theaters exist, it is a great example of the power of the big screen.
Hoyt van Hoytema’s pristine cinematography is breathtaking. While the editing allows it to truly shine, there are a plethora of moments where the camera lingers on desolate beaches and aeronautical specters that enrich the three pronged approach with unflinching realism. There are so many unique tactics employed, it seems daunting, but they flow together with a dangerous sense of truth. While other efforts rely on tracking shots and shaky-cam trickery, Hoytema is interested in the soul of Nolan’s vicious poetry, and the result is a cold, omnipotent viewpoint that leaves everything on the table. There are no favorites, no shining stars, and nothing but the events themselves matters. This is a startling film, but one that is relentlessly human in its retelling and this is something that will either resonate with the viewer, or repulse.
In theaters now, Dunkirk is one of the few masterpieces of 2017, and the best film of Christopher Nolan’s fabled portfolio. Every element of what mystifies and entices us to watch films is present. There is tragedy and redemption, heroism and cowardice, and most importantly darkness and unyielding light. If you see one film in the theater this year, this is the one. If you’re looking for a traditional war film, look elsewhere. Nolan’s masterful, tightly paced epic is an endurance test for the mind and heart. Dunkirk is a retelling of history in a hands-off, brutally realistic manner that will leave you stunned for its duration, and long after the lights have come up.
Highly. Highly Recommend.