Filmmaker Christopher Nolan trains his discerning directorial eye on a decisive battle in the early stages of World War II in “Dunkirk,” a technically flawless and utterly captivating action thriller featuring a top-notch international cast led by Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh.
An absolutely stunning piece of filmmaking, Nolan deftly directs his own action-packed script about Allied soldiers surrounded by German troops on a French beach, told from three perspectives: air, land and sea. Capturing the chaos of battle with devastating realism, and utilizing a breathtaking mixture of IMAX and 65mm cinematography, “Dunkirk” instantly asserts itself as among the very best war films of recent memory and exhibits Nolan at the top of his cinematic game. In addition to the masterful direction and award-worthy camerawork, “Dunkirk” also achieves its dramatic effect thanks to a talented ensemble cast, a spellbinding score by Hans Zimmer and exemplary editing by Lee Smith. Simply put and without exaggeration, not since “Saving Private Ryan” has a WWII story come along that’s left such a lasting impression.
Set in the Spring of 1940 during the Battle of France, “Dunkirk” tells the story of Operation Dynamo, a heroic nine-day mission to evacuate thousands of Allied soldiers from the titular French beach where they were trapped by German soldiers. Our first glimpse of the battle comes from the perspective of Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a British Army private who narrowly survives a firefight only to find himself cornered on the beach along with thousands of fellow Allied troops. With bombs raining down from German fighter planes above and only a rickety pier from which to evacuate, Tommy and his fellow soldiers – including Alex (Harry Styles) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) – face a grim reality.
While the soldiers’ evacuation attempt plays out, the film cuts to the aerial action, where two RAF (Royal Air Force) Spitfire pilots, the veteran Farrier (Tom Hardy) and the less-experienced Collins (Jack Lowden), desperately try to gun down the German ME-109s before they bombard the beach and rescue vessels below. The final thread to this suspenseful tale follows Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), the courageous captain of the Moonstone, one of hundreds of little boats manned by English civilians who crossed the Channel to aid in the evacuation effort. With Dawson’s son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a brave but naïve kid (Barry Keoghan) tagging along, their mission grows even more perilous when they rescue a shell-shocked survivor clutching to the wreckage of a torpedoed ship.
Throwing audiences right into the thick of battle, Nolan’s approach to the material is intentionally disorienting as he attempts to replicate the confusion and chaos experienced by soldiers on the ground. Because Nolan’s script uses sparse dialogue, instead favoring explosive action scenes from three distinct perspectives, some audiences may find the proceedings more complicated than others, but at its core is a primal and very accessible survival tale. Beyond Nolan’s superlative direction and scripting, “Dunkirk” stands out for its awe-inspiring cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema (“Interstellar,” “Her”), who creates an intensely immersive cinematic world with his ingenious use of IMAX and 65mm cameras. Adding immensely to this sensory experience is Hans Zimmer’s suspenseful score, which opts for discordant notes that effectively relate the subject’s inherent tension. Lee Smith’s inspired editing also braids together these storylines in expert fashion, and the sound design goes a long way in capturing the mayhem and immediacy of war.
Spanning the air, land and sea, the performances of “Dunkirk” are universally excellent. On the aerial end, much like he accomplished for Nolan in the role of Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Tom Hardy, despite being confined to a fighter plane with a mask covering much of his face, uses only his eyes and some muddled lines of dialogue to give a memorable performance as a tenacious RAF Spitfire pilot. As for the beached soldiers, newcomer Fionn Whitehead proves himself a compelling presence as a desperate British Army private who functions as the audience surrogate. And representing the hundreds of English civilians who risked life and limb to aid in the rescue effort, Mark Rylance (“Bridge of Spies”) gives an impassioned performance as the patriotic captain of the Moonstone.
In short, “Dunkirk” is a truly remarkable war film whose epic scope warrants the IMAX experience.
By Lucas Mirabella
Running Time: 106 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language.