World War II has long been the basis for countless movies in the decades since its ending. A conflict with clear lines of a worldly good battling an unspeakable evil, the struggle has been mined repeatedly through countless films and genres. When word came that director/writer Christopher Nolan (best known for the Dark Knight Trilogy) was going to be taking on the conflict, I met the news with a shrug. Even as a massive fan of his work, I wondered what story remained – and this weekend he has delivered it with Dunkirk, one of the most visceral, intense, and riveting cinematic experiences I’ve ever had the pleasure of taking in.
What makes Dunkirk stand out among countless World War II films is precisely how it is delivered. Focusing on three unique narratives – one in the air, another on land, and another in the sea – the story cuts between three stories, told with little dialogue and a strange chronology. It sounds far more complicated than it is delivered, which is credit to the scripting of Nolan and editing of Lee Smith, Nolan’s longtime collaborator.
Dialogue is muffled, not always easy to hear, and the characters are mere vessels for us to insert ourselves into the action – but is that action which keeps you glued and riveted. Christopher Nolan, along with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and another incredible score from Hans Zimmer, shows us the intense cost of war captured and delivered in a way we’ve never seen before. It almost feels like a really dark amusement park ride, as we are witness and first-hand viewer to near unending adversity, explosions, drowning and violence. Yet at the same time there is an incredible pride pulsing through the film, admiring the heroism and bravery of those who fight. The movie never feels jingoistic, nor political, but instead focuses on those who serve their duty – even to their final end.
The cast, in all honesty, feels irrelevant, but includes a mixture of regular Nolan collaborators (Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy), admired actors (Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance), and newcomers (Fionn Whitehead, and ex-One Direction member Harry Styles, in a surprisingly not distracting appearance). They perform their roles well, none overacting or having a “tour de force”, but in effect landing the plane of the entrancing action and large scale set pieces which fill Dunkirk’s lean 106 minute runtime. If anything, the focus on emotional spectacle rather than emotional performance allows Nolan’s best abilities to shine through here.
One of the most captivating moviegoing experiences I’ve been able to experience, I recommend seeing Dunkirk on the largest screen and the loudest sound which you can. My local theater offered 70mm, but if your options include IMAX or similar, I do recommend it. It’s an adventure for the eyes and ears, and a war film you will not soon forget.
Dunkirk is in theaters now.