Christoper Nolan Rivets, Rewards With "Dunkirk"

Moral victories were hard to come by for the Allies in World War II, but one of their biggest came quickly: in late May and early June of 1940, less than a year into combat. On the beaches of Dunkirk, France and in the waters offshore occurred a veritable miracle. 400,000 British and French troops found themselves backed into a corner by German forces sweeping west across France. That corner was a French fishing village named Dunkerque, just 40 nautical miles from England. Utterly unprepared for a mass evacuation of men, let alone tanks, weapons, and more, British officers seized on a brief hesitation from the Germans to cobble together a plan: Operation Dynamo.

With all British troops behind a perimeter on marshy land that couldn’t be traversed by German tanks, hundreds of vessels of every size would ferry soldiers across the English Channel from Dunkirk to Dover. Cue the proverbial “It’s so crazy, it just might work.”

It worked.

It’s a story most skillfully told by writer-director Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight”) in his tenth feature, aptly titled “Dunkirk.” Shot mostly on IMAX cameras with no expense spared on any front – expensive and complicated practical effects abound where most filmmakers would have settled for CGI – the picture is best experienced in the stunningly high resolution of IMAX theaters equipped to roll 70mm film. Instead of the character-based recreation of one of World War II’s most harrowing incidents that might have been – the movie might have finally landed Nolan his Oscar – he’s delivered the year’s premier experiential drama, boldly putting a premium on audio-visual immersion over traditional storytelling. Much like the military plan it depicts, it works. Against all odds.

The always temporally minded filmmaker (“Memento,” “Inception,” “Interstellar”) once again masterfully plays with our perception of time, this time by intertwining three distinct story segments of varying durations. These three fictionalized but spiritually faithful accounts of Operation Dynamo combine to form a cable with so much tension that it’s lucky “Dunkirk” ends up one of the auteur’s shortest works to date. 107 minutes is just right.

First, “The Mole,” the part of the story that unfurls on land over the course of a week. Actor Fionn Whitehead is the closest thing “Dunkirk” has to a lead, playing a gawky British Army private and our avatar for those soldiers in desperate need of a ride home. After escaping German fire on the streets of Dunkirk, he makes it to the beach only to find himself in an extended state of limbo. German attacks via air and sea hamper his and so many other’s attempts to find passage, leaving him in a present that’s even more frightening than his immediate past – and potentially fatal future.

Second, “The Sea.” This portion takes place over the course of a day. At the behest of the Royal Navy, a British civilian named Dawson (the marvelous Mark Rylance, “Bridge Of Spies”), his teenage son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and their boat hand George (Barry Keoghan) set sail from England to Dunkirk to assist in Operation Dynamo. The trio has a star-crossed encounter with a wrecked, traumatized British soldier (Cillian Murphy) and then makes a tense rescue attempt of a downed British fighter pilot (Jack Lowden).

Third, “The Air.” An hour in the life of a Royal Air Spitfire pilot named Farrier (Tom Hardy). Farrier and the aforementioned Collins engage in several dogfights with German planes high above the English channel, breathlessly – on our part as well as theirs – fending off threats to the hundreds of thousands of men below. Tom Hardy, his face typically concealed by a mask, unsurprisingly steals the show, doing more acting with one-third of face than most can do with an entire body. Adding to the excitement of the aerial battles is the emphasis on practical effects, with no apparent seam between real and computer-generated. It’s impossible to tell – a boon for a film reliant on absolute immersion.

Conversely, Hans Zimmer’s ticking-clock based score is more bane than boon, ably ramping up tension on its own but never quite blending in with the sparseness of Nolan’s direction. Instead of accenting the pic’s sublime audiovisual notes, Zimmer cuts through the fog of war like a scythe, falling well short of the screenplay’s surprisingly understated symmetry. On several occasions when the three stories overlap both visually and thematically, Zimmer is there with unnecessary musical hand-holding. Nolan’s writing and Lee Smith’s editing are musical in themselves – often mesmerizingly so – making the bombast of a literal ticking clock quite unwelcome.

Musical missteps aside, “Dunkirk” should age beautifully, with its stunning 70mm IMAX presentation a shoo-in for revivals down the line. If it’s not Chris Nolan’s most emotionally resonant film to date (both “Inception” and “Interstellar” more effectively wear their hearts on their sleeves), it’s his most immersive and technically accomplished by a bit. For a concurrently dead simple and wildly innovative white knuckler of a war pic, look no further. One of our greats is back with more greatness.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: July 21, 2017
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenwriter: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense war experience and some language)