"...we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall never surrender." -Winston Churchill, shortly after the evacuation of Dunkirk
In the spring of 1940, British troops were surrounded by German military at Dunkirk, on the Northern coast of France, a mere 20-some miles from the English shore. The British launched Operation Dynamo, an effort to evacuate as many of allied forces as possible.*
A few weeks ago, the lauded Christopher Nolan(Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, etc.) released Dunkirk to commemorate those events.
Thankfully, after all the hype and praise, it turns out there is little wrong with Dunkirk. At the same time, it never floored me and I might even go so far as to say it never quite reached its full potential. That isn't to imply a movie must floor its audience to be good-- Dunkirk isn't not good. It's a fine movie. But it isn't the cinematic exhibition I had expected.
The story unfolds simultaneously on three levels: land(one week), water(one day), and air(one hour). The overlap was highly disorienting. I've heard the confusion was intended to immerse the audience in the unsettling nature of war. However, I feel like war is disorienting in different ways so I wish he had focused more on different opportunities for demonstrating that.
Nolan conveyed terror less through graphic violence and more through facial expressions, dialogue, and the loud noises of warfare-- I jumped in my theater seat several times. There's a place for that explicitness in other war films, but I think Nolan wanted to impress on us the more prominent horrors of the Dunkirk scenes. I feel like he could have done a little more of that-- lingering longer on the bombing episodes and shorter on the interim(or not necessarily shorter, considering the movies quick run-time). Even without crossing a boundary into gratuitous violence, I wish the film had better impressed on me the stakes at Dunkirk.
So what about Dunkirk did impress me?
For one, the casting. The more respected actors(Kenneth Branagh, Cilian Murphy, Tom Hardy) were relegated to fairly minor roles, leaving room for the extras and smaller-name actors.
Dunkirk is both Fionn Whitehead's and Harry Styles's film debut. Casting Fionn Whitehead as the main character was brilliant because he felt authentic and didn't carry any celebrity baggage. And though it baffles me why the casting directors saw fit to include a boy-band-heart-throb-teen-sensation, Harry Styles performed well, his character fitting neatly into the narrative.
Much of the movie's shots are gorgeous-- almost distracting-ly so. The sheer beauty of the composition, the landscape, and the use of colors were enough to nearly detract from the tone of the story.
Unlike most war movies(and films in general), Dunkirk doesn't pedestal a couple select heroes of the evacuation, but offered a grounded immersion in the actions of realistic characters-- some heroes, but most frankly on level with how average people would probably respond in those circumstances.
The lack of dialogue was reverent and boasted amazing showing-versus-telling techniques. Hans Zimmer's soundtrack, though un-melodic, complements the tone and heightens tension. The videography, especially in scenes shot underwater, was inventive and (literally) immersive.
Immersive is an excellent word for this movie. It was a 107 minutes of my afternoon well spent. Dunkirk could have delivered better in a few areas, but it gave me deeper respect for the historical event and in many aspects, was even enjoyable. So I'm giving it 3.5 out of 5 stars.
Have you seen Dunkirk? What did you think? Were you able to follow the story, or did you find it confusing?