‘Dunkirk’ rides wave of expectations

Dunkirk (2017)

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Despite clocking in at just over 100 minutes (his shortest feature film since his very first one), “Dunkirk” is an ambitious effort by director Christopher Nolan. With over 6,000 extras and a still-unspecified (but certainly humongous) budget (including one $5 million dollar vintage fighter jet), “Dunkirk” spares no expense—Nolan made sure his first war-set movie (though he insists it’s not a “war movie”) met his high standards.

When nearly half a million British and French soldiers were backed onto the beaches of Dunkirk, France, surrounded on all sides by Germans, they had little choice but to hunker down and wait to be rescued. But the British government didn’t think they had much hope, so they didn’t deem it prudent to sacrifice too many of their warships to save them. Same with their jets, though some (like the one flown by Tom Hardy) were still available to help defend against the Axis fighter pilots picking off the beached platoons (including Fionn Whitehead, Kenneth Branagh, and Harry Styles). When British fishermen and other boat-owning patriots (like Mark Rylance) heard of the military’s plight, they set off across the channel to do what they could do.

Nolan has called “Dunkirk” first-and-foremost a suspense film. Hans Zimmer’s score, topping the competition for 2017 so far, helps intensify the already nerve-wracking moments of desperation. When bombers fly overhead, well-choreographed masses of soldiers duck for cover, in sync. It’s a ballet of fear and desperation. The screeching sounds of missiles piercing through the air will give anybody chills. Trigger warning for actual veterans—I can’t possibly relate to PTS, but now I have some idea of how sounds can bring back the horrors of war. Nolan’s first foray into this new territory is horrifyingly realistic.

With hundreds of skinny British boys of a certain age all sporting the same dark mop of hair, “Dunkirk” makes it hard to see the individual. There’s no Private Ryan to feel for. The lives lost on screen are lives you barely knew. It can be hard to relate. But with relatively little dialogue, and no real main characters (few even have names), “Dunkirk” is kind of like a real war—a genuine team effort. We really only ever see Tom Hardy from the chest up, but his command of the screen regardless of that is a testament to his impact. Mark Rylance is always a treat—you can’t speak an ill word of his acting. And Harry Styles is very capable in his first feature film acting gig. He, like the rest of the cast, doesn’t have enough screentime to shine, but his performance should convince other directors and casting departments that he and other first-timers can do well if they’re given proper direction.

In true Christopher Nolan fashion, “Dunkirk” sometimes gets bogged down by its complex narrative structure. Different stories, different perspectives, and different time frames mean “Dunkirk” won’t let you follow it without putting in a little effort, a little extra thinking. But you get out what you put in. It can be safely said that, as with the superhero movie, the space epic, the mystery, and whatever “Inception” is, the war movie is one capably handled by the master auteur Christopher Nolan. “Dunkirk” is, without doubt, and without surprise, one of the best movies so far this year.


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