Nowadays it seems like WWII has been covered so extensively in movies that there are no stories left to tell. Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception director Christopher Nolan steps up to the challenge of finding new insight into the war and its effect on the people in it with his new movie Dunkirk, ultimately carving out a new lane for the WWII genre, with a brutally intense (if not sometimes confusing) psychological thriller, which uses the war as a gorgeously bleak backdrop in full theatrical splendor.
The story takes place in Dunkirk, France, where English, Belgian, and French soldiers of the Allied Forces are surrounded on all sides by the Axis powers, with the Ocean channel offering the only means of escape. In this war-torn setting we follow three intersecting storylines about a group of young soldiers trying to get off the beach; a civilian father and son sailing to Dunkirk on a rescue mission; and an Royal Air Force pilot, trying to stop the Axis bombers who are attacking Allied ships trying to provide rescue.
The three stories converge as each set of characters desperately try an aid in a desperate final exodus from the doomed shores; however, the purgatory that is Dunkirk proves to be more dangerous than anyone ever imagined. Escape attempts fail, lives are lost by the handful, and the last glimmer of hope for the soldiers flickers violently, threatening to be snuffed out by death overwhelming despair.
Christopher Nolan is known for creating mind-bending and often non-linear thrillers like Memento and Inception; when it comes to applying that talent to real historical events, the acclaimed director delivers in a big way - albeit slightly hampered by some minor flaws. Dunkirk is a smashing success in terms of creating a taut and tense thriller; however, Nolan's famously cerebral and Avant-garde approach to storytelling complicates what could have been an effective straightforward narrative.
From a direction standpoint, Dunkirk is pure theatrical spectacle of the best kind. Nolan creates each story thread with good old-fashioned movie making prowess pulled together from all of his previous films. The tense action thrill sequences and sharp edits of The Dark Knight translate into pulse-pounding scenes of combat and desperate escape; that opening aerial heist of The Dark Knight Rises helps shape the entire aerial combat sequences of this film; the multi-layered story telling and gravity-bending action of Inception shapes the thematic path and major maritime action sequences; and the narrative twists and loops of Memento shape the intersecting storylines to create some nice revelations and thematic payoffs.
In short: Dunkirk is, in many ways, a culmination of all Nolan's experience to this point, and demonstrates the growth and mastery the filmmaker has gained along the way. It's the type of affecting event film that will actually captivate phone-addict audiences, and deserves to be seen on the biggest IMAX or 70mmm IMAX screen possible, as Nolan has also mastered the art of using the massive cameras to create one-of-a-kind visuals, on a giant scale.
Nolan's script for the film is also a good showcase of lessons learned along the path of his career. The filmmaking auteur is most often criticized for stories that lack real emotion or emotional connections between characters, with heavy-handed dialogue that seems overly artificial, without the naturalistic feel of actual human speech and conversational flow. With Dunkirk, Nolan sidesteps his own weak point by simply doing away with much of the dialogue one expects in a movie, creating a semi-silent film experience in which the power of composer Hans Zimmer's score is pushed to the forefront, generating the cinematic magic that makes everything feel more grandiose, tense, or heartfelt. Some may see this tactic on Nolan's part as a cheat, but it is a massively effective one, so those complaints will ultimately be invalid in the minds of many viewers.
As stated, the only real drawback to Nolan's script (and the film) is the somewhat jarring way it presents its three storylines. A lot of viewers will be thrown by the contextual set up of each story thread, which are initially defined by textual labels that don't make much sense until much later on, when the intersections between the stories begin to make it clear how time and location frame each segment. By the end of the film, it's abundantly clear what Nolan's intent was - but truthfully, Dunkirk's greatest strength is the constant sense of immediate danger (from an enemy who is never really shown), and therefore, the attempts to play with time arguably take away from the movie's power, without ever delivering major payoff.
Thankfully, the performances of the main cast keep things intimate and immediate, so that the twisted narrative never really affects the viewing experience all that much. Young Fionn Whitehead has a major breakout performance as "Tommy" (not that names matter in this film), the young soldier who has been on the beach at Dunkirk for a long time, barely keeping one step ahead of death. Whitehead carries most of the film within his barely composed facial expressions and soft-toned voice, while his boyish looks work to heighten the horror of this hellish situation happening to someone so very young and vulnerable.
Veteran actors like Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy (as a civilian father sailing with two young boys into Dunkirk, and a skilled fighter pilot, respectively) are able to tell entire volumes of backstory with just their faces, body language, and a handful of spoken words. They two acclaimed actors create the larger sense of what toll this war has taken over time, and just how serious the situation at Dunkirk really is. Kenneth Branagh and James D'Arcy (as two high-ranking officers stationed on the beach) nail the challenge of delivering the most grandiose sections of Nolan-esque dialogue in the film, and draw upon their theatrical prowess to frame each act of the story with dramatic energy. There are also a lot of pivotal supporting roles (like Nolan mainstay Cillian Murphy or the much-hyped inclusion of One Direction star Harry Styles), but every player of the ensemble delivers the energy needed to propel things - through sheer emoting, a majority of the time.
In the end, Dunkirk proves there are still great (and original) stories from the WWII era to be told, while also showcasing just how far Chris Nolan has come as a filmmaker. Don't wait for this one to hit home video, as this is one of the rare modern examples of why movie theaters still need to exist.
Dunkirk is now in theaters everywhere, in standard, IMAX and 70mm IMAX formats (go with the latter). It is 1 hours 46 minutes long, and Rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language.