Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonard, Aneurin Barnard
Synopsis: Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France are surrounded by the German army and evacuated during a fierce battle during World War II.
Genre: Action, Drama, History
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense war experience and some language)
Release Date: July 21, 2017
Not all victories are the same. When a country wins a war, that's a victory. When you beat your friend in a game of chess, that's a victory. Sometimes, however, victory is something completely different than winning something or beating someone--victory is simply surviving. For instance, if you are in a car crash and only sustain minor injuries or several occupants perish but you survive, that's a victory.
Christopher Nolan explores this notion of victory in his new historical drama action film Dunkirk. The film is a dramatic departure for Nolan in several ways--the first being that the film is historical and not an original, fictional story based on a book (The Prestige, 2006) or a comic book (The Dark Knight trilogy, 2005-2012). The film is also an entirely new genre for Nolan, who usually produces science fiction works with mind-bending ideas (Inception, 2010 and Interstellar, 2014). In interviews leading up to the film, Nolan stated that, as an Englishman himself, he has always been passionate about Britain's role in World War II and the many events that took place with their involvement in the war. In Dunkirk, he brings to vivid life the incredible evacuation of allied soldiers from the German-surrounded beach of Dunkirk in France.
The most shocking of Nolan's changing elements in Dunkirk is not the genre shift--it is the shift in character design. All of Nolan's previous films have had deeply rooted protagonists--ones that usually struggled psychologically in some way (Dom in Inception or Bruce in The Dark Knight). In Dunkirk, there is no single protagonist. Instead, there are several individuals that Nolan chooses to focus on. True to his style of nonlinear storytelling, Nolan explores these characters from three settings across three different time frames, the land (whose time period is one week and focuses on characters Tommy, Gibson, and Alex), the sea (one day, which focuses on Mr. Dawson, Peter, and George) and the air (one hour--where Tom Hardy once again dons a mask, this time in a spitfire plane). As in his previous films, Nolan frequently cross cuts between the lines of action, displaying the simultaneous nature of the events and the actions of those involved. The character structure, though at times frustrating, is well served in the film, as the evacuation of Dunkirk was a group effort--not one single person orchestrated the events. Furthermore, this is one element that separates Nolan's film from other war epics like Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998) or Hacksaw Ridge (Mel Gibson, 2016), films that were certainly well-crafted and successful, but focused on one protagonist. Each approach can and does work in its own way, but Nolan's approach, while a little difficult to get used to initially, gives his film a feeling of authenticity and documentaryishness that would've been more difficult to glean had he only focused on one protagonist.
As has become a golden standard in his films, Nolan uses practical effects wherever he can. Everything looks as tangible and real as possible, from the bombings to the sinking ships to the air fighting sequences. Per his trademark, Nolan also shot most of the film (around 70%) on IMAX cameras, taking full advantage of the highest resolution format available on the planet, and it certainly pays off seeing it on the big screen. The aerial shots in particular are breathtaking, making you feel as though you you're flying as the pilot. And he does this all without using 3D, a format that has been utilized more as a way of selling higher ticket prices than really providing audiences with a more visceral experience at the movies.
While Nolan provides solid action sequences for audiences, Hans Zimmer once again comes through to produce a tense, pulse pounding score that keeps viewers engaged in the film. Zimmer implements a clock ticking beat into the music, letting viewers know the severity and time-crunching nature of the event taking place. For later scenes, his music soars to commemorate the soldiers and citizens who worked together to bring each other home.
Dunkirk, at only 1 hour and 46 minutes, is Nolan's shortest film since his feature-length directional debut with Following (1998). It is well paced, sharply directed and acted, and features a pulsing yet beautiful score from Hans Zimmer. It also distinguishes itself from other war films with its nonlinear narrative structure, unique character design, and even its PG-13 rating, which never hinders its impact and at times feels just as harsh and brutal as other R rated war films. Dunkirk will probably make a splash at next year's Oscars, and just may garner Nolan his first Best Director nomination, a reward that has been a long time coming for him. At any rate, his new film proves how he can branch out into a new genre and still produce an engaging, visceral experience in the cinema, further showcasing and expanding his amazing craft, skill and reputation as one of the best directors making films today.