Director Christopher Nolan Brings Us The Shortest War Epic Ever
From magical acts to super hero movies to interstellar space travel, director Christopher Nolan has tackled nearly every genre with skill and ease. Now he sets his targets on the epic war genre. Oddly enough, Nolan delivers one of his shortest films to date with Dunkirk. Yet, that’s all the time the director needs to provide a stunning glimpse into the horror of war. What he delivers is a suspense filled story of survival rolled into a tight package that never lets you catch your breath.
Taking place over the course of a week, Dunkirk revolves around the evacuation of British troops from the Western Front of France. Completely surrounded by German forces, all hope seems lost for the 400,000 men. Worst of all, they can almost see home just across the channel. As each successive attempt to evacuate troops is thwarted, the British command enlists the help of civilian ships to cross the channel and pick up as many troops as they can to bring them home.
If you’ve seen Nolan’s film Memento, you know the director sometimes likes to tell a story with unique editing techniques. Dunkirk features a style of story telling I didn’t quite catch onto until the middle of the film. While there are some title cards that appear towards the beginning of the film to help you realize it, they are a bit ambiguous until it clicks for you later on. It wasn’t until I saw a character in two different locations that it finally dawned on me that this film’s story isn’t linear. I say this not to spoil anything, as I feel some people may enjoy the film a bit more without this confusion.
There are three storylines the film follows. Most of the film follows Fionn Whitehead as Tommy and his continuing fight for survival. As troops line up to evacuate on the beaches of Dunkirk, a location known as The Mole, the German threat looms overhead. His story takes place over the course of a week. Secondly, we follow Mark Rylance as civilian boater Mr. Dawson. He leaves home with his son and a friend to try to rescue troops. His story takes place over the course of a day. Finally, there’s Tom Hardy as the fighter pilot Farrier. His heroic actions, dog fighting German bombers and fighters, rolls out in real time over the course of an hour.
The brilliance of this film is how Nolan weaves together these three storylines. As Tommy fights to get home, we see Mr. Dawson struggle with the fact that he’s traveling into a war zone with no weapons. Meanwhile, from the air Farrier is the only thing that stands between Germans sinking ship after ship and these troops getting home safely. While each plot line gives a different perspective on the Battle of Dunkirk, the intensity of each unique story compounds on top of each other to create a suspenseful edge of your seat war epic.
There’s little dialogue in the film and what we do see conversed is quick and to the point. As is most of the film. Orders are spouted, a strategy is explained, and the events unfold. Despite the lack of dialogue, every performance Nolan squeezes from his actors is emotional and effective. Most of the cast is made up of unfamiliar faces or first-time actors like Harry Styles. Yet, Nolan still finds room for his regulars like Hardy and Cillian Murphy. Furthermore, Hardy somehow finds a way to act behind a mask for a majority of the film again. Regardless of who’s face we see, the horrors and tests of war are evident throughout.
Dunkirk never lets you get comfortable, you’re constantly sitting on the edge of your seat. This puts you in the middle of the sound and fury of war with expertise. With very little blood for a war movie, what you really begin to fear is the water. The channel feels like an ally of the Germans. Seeping in through every hole and crack. Even flying above the sea in the cockpit of a fighter makes you anxious of what lies below. Combine that with some of the best aerial dog fighting scenes you’ll ever see, you’ll be happy this film is on the shorter side. It’s the perfect length to sustain this level of intensity without over burdening the audience.
Regardless of runtime, Nolan delivers an epic war film that’s more than just a war film. It’s a story of survival. A story of suspense. Most notable, a story of hope. With amazing performances throughout, awe inspiring and intense dog fights, and an almost family friendly look at the horrors of war, Dunkirk is a must see film. It will make you want to go home again. Most of all, you’ll be thankful for the men and women who fight for the defense our homelands.
Supchucks’ Official Grade: A-
Dunkirk Official Synopsis:
Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Aneurin Barnard, Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, Jack Lowden, Tom Glynn-Carney, Harry Styles, James D’ Arcy, and Kenneth Barnagh.
Director(s): Christopher Nolan
Writer(s): Christopher Nolan
Rating: PG-13 (for intense war experience and some language)
Runtime: 106 minutes
Studio: Syncopy, Warner Bros.