In desperate times, the desperate strive
To conquer odds and just survive,
A second, minute, hour away
To die or live another day.
Is this success, to scrape on through,
To call retreat as foes pursue?
Is it defeat to slip away
To live and fight another day?
MPAA rating: PG-13
Dunkirk was one of my most anticipated movies this year, and Christopher Nolan delivered. And what he delivered is a war movie unlike any other, one that uses his penchant for time manipulation in order to provide a comprehensive and visceral glance at the Dunkirk evacuation, which until now wasn’t nearly as known as it should have been.
Minimally explained by a couple words on the screen, the film takes place in three different time frames: a week for the soldiers stranded on Dunkirk’s beaches as they desperately seek rescue, a day for a small civilian vessel on its way across the English Channel to help, and an hour for a lone RAF pilot (Tom Hardy) as he defends evacuees from German bombers. The movie bounces around between time frames so frequently that it’s easy to confuse the chronology of events that play out faster in one timeline than another, but it also becomes a sort of epic puzzle as the three stories converge toward the end.
Dunkirk is far from a head trip, though; it’s a non-stop adrenaline rush. From the first moments where silence is shattered by sudden gunfire, the nerves are constantly put on edge. I wouldn’t doubt that Dunkirk is a shoo-in for technical Oscars, like Sound Editing: augmented by Hans Zimmer’s escalating score, the gunshots and the blaring drone of incoming bombers are deafening (my theater had excellent speakers), lending the audience a taste of the shell shock felt by the soldiers of Dunkirk.
It’s amazing how relentless the suspense is across all three stories. Hardy’s midair dogfights are thrillingly authentic, especially with the knowledge that real period planes were used rather than CGI re-creations, while Mark Rylance embodies civilian determination as the skipper of the small boat Moonstone, offering brave wisdom while dealing with a panicky survivor (Cillian Murphy). The most unnerving scenes go to the British young men on Dunkirk’s stark, wind-swept beaches, particularly Fionn Whitehead as our touchstone in that time frame. We barely get to know any of the soldiers, which also include Aneurin Barnard and a quite solid Harry Styles, but their desperation is palpable as they search for any boat in the storm. One scene of a torpedo attack is a whirl of watery chaos; not since Titanic has a ship sinking been so riveting.
On technical merit, the film is practically flawless, but there were a few things that held it back from total perfection, for me at least. Aside from the potential confusion of the three time frames, I suppose I prefer war movies to have a bit more character development. I never really learned any of the characters’ names or backgrounds, and the beach-bound soldiers have precious little to say to each other, although I’m sure it was likely intentional to focus more on their immediate actions rather than backstory and dialogue. A few moments also left me confused as to people’s reasoning, like when soldiers on an endangered boat insist that someone should get off or when one character seems to choose capture by the enemy over joining the evacuation. One tiny bit of improved editing might also have better shown that a waterlogged boat was actually at sea rather than just surrounded by the incoming tide. Plus, Nolan’s focus for the film was clearly the desperation of everyone involved, and while heroism has its triumphant moments, the desperation tends to overwhelm it and leave little room for any religious aspect of the story, like the day of prayer in Britain beforehand or the miraculous storm that kept the German army at bay.
I quite agree with the consensus that Dunkirk is one of the great war movies of all time, and its beach setting makes comparisons to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan inevitable. While I think Saving Private Ryan is a better film overall, I will say that I appreciated Dunkirk’s comparative restraint. There are no severed limbs or sprays of blood, and the intensity of the war scenes is not diminished one bit. Yet perhaps that’s due to a difference in directorial intention. I loved Nolan’s explanation he gave in an interview, stating that Saving Private Ryan showed the horror of war with scenes to make you want to turn away, while Nolan wanted to make a film of suspense that “you can’t take your eyes off.” In that, he succeeded, and even if it’s not quite perfect, even if I still consider Inception Nolan’s best work, Dunkirk is a brilliantly executed, well-acted, edge-of-your-seat piece of immersive history.
Best line: (Rylance’s Mr. Dawson) “He’s shell-shocked, George. He’s not himself. He might never be himself again.”
© 2017 S.G. Liput
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