10 out of 10
Fionn Whitehead as Tommy
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Dunkirk wastes very little time. From the moment the film starts, we are in the thick of World War II, and the British evacuation of Dunkirk, as a young soldier in the streets looks for safe haven any way he can. Meanwhile, a small fishing boat captain, with his two sons, begins to make his way across the channel to help with the rescue. And above, in the skies, two pilots begin trying to clear the way so that other ships and soldiers can break free. Dunkirk is not a film that is very interested in exploring the larger, historical impact of that week of May 26th to June 4th, 1940. Director and screenwriter Christopher Nolan trusts the audience enough to know how to pick up a book or two. Instead, Nolan wants us to feel it. He wants us to experience every gunshot, every explosion, and every moment of silence in between as these soldiers excruciatingly wait for a rescue that may never come. This is no clinical, cold examination of war. Dunkirk is alive, on the unsteady ground, the tempestuous seas, the turbulent air.
Christopher Nolan has always been a filmmaker that values the cinematic experience, a director that has wanted, like his idol Stanley Kubrick, to move his audience in ways that will change them forever. Throughout his career, he’s had varying levels of success at that. Now, Dunkirk is the culmination of everything that Nolan has achieved so far. It’s all there – how Nolan plays with space and time, how he builds to a genuine emotional catharsis without cheap sentiment, how he can show scenes of epic grandeur right next to intimate, quietly powerful moments. In previous films, sometimes Nolan overplayed his hand – either he could rely on bombast when subtlety would work just as well, or clumsily shift tone from cold to overly sentimental. But when Nolan is truly on his game, there are very few filmmakers this side of Kubrick or even David Lean who can compare to the majestic images, emotion, and power on display. Nolan may be inspired by those other filmmakers, and in previous films perhaps emulated them to the point of distraction, but Dunkirk is uniquely, purely, his own. Like the opening sequence of The Dark Knight, the dream logic of Inception, even the time shifts of Memento, Nolan brings all his considerable gifts to Dunkirk, and the result is magnificent. You have never seen a war film like this.
Dunkirk is split into three sections, and while the film plays linearly, each section takes place in its own segment of time. Ordinarily, each of these segments, operating in their own time frames of a week, a day, and an hour respectively, would seem confusing and disjointed, but Nolan, along with his long-time editor Lee Smith, manage to make each section flow into the next with precision and clarity. We always understand what is going on and when, even as time shifts and flows around us. Nolan fills each moment with impact and intensity, and even though we know that events are not necessarily happening at the same time, each scene plays against each other with a cumulative power that is impossible to shake. We are riding these waves, with Nolan as our captain, and I’ve never felt more confident in a filmmaker to guide us through. I don’t think it was possible for Nolan to make this film before now. He has honed his skills to a razor sharpness. This is easily the best work he has ever done.
And while Dunkirk is epic on scope, Nolan doesn’t sacrifice his affinity with actors, either. Dunkirk is a true ensemble piece, full of the likes of great performances like Mark Rylance’s Dawson, steady and stern, even when tragedy strikes. Or Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton, who refuses to abandon his men. Or Fionn Whitehead as Tommy, our audience surrogate as he tries to find some way, any way, off the beach. Or Tom Hardy’s Farrier, a pilot of few words and a mask on his face (sound familiar), who is still heroic and capable. All of these characters and stories ebb and flow, complementing each other, and building to such a crescendo of emotion and glory that is almost overwhelming. The performances are stellar, rooted in realism and emotion that puts all the grandeur and horror on a human level. Even Hans Zimmer’s score, certainly among his best, fills each moment of Dunkirk with force and passion.
Nolan isn’t interested in visual excess, either. We aren’t given computer-generated armies as far as the eye can see, or thousands of ships cresting on the open sea. Instead, Nolan shoots for a realism that feels honest and true, so that when the spectacular moments happen, they feel real in ways that many other films of this scope do not. When the film moves from smaller, quieter scenes to sweeping, almost orchestral action sequences, the tone does not feel abrupt or awkward. Nolan is a master conductor, striving for the experiential, not bogging the audience down in any details that would distract from the emotion of what we are seeing. Even the Nazi soldiers are faceless, offscreen, able to strike at any time, at any place, which makes them even more terrifying.
Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s greatest cinematic achievement, a masterpiece on every level. This is a film for the ages, and it’s not often we get to see a genuine classic happen right in front of our eyes. Find it on the largest, biggest, loudest screen you can. As a snapshot of history, as an experience, as an exploration of humanity during war, Dunkirk is unforgettable.