During the late spring of 1940, the Nazi blitzkrieg stormed across Europe, driving the shocked and disorganized Allied armies to the French coast. The expeditionary forces of nearly 400000 British and French troops are trapped and face total destruction – except for the heroic actions of RAF and English men and woman who risk their own lives to take their boats across the Channel to save their soldiers at “Dunkirk.”
Christopher Nolan has made a brilliantly composed and detailed look at victory snatched from defeat in the guise of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers rescued and returned to their country to continue the fight against the Nazis. The filmmaker and his crew researched the epic event and it shows in the accurate details of the equipment, tactics and events that took place on Dunkirk.
The story is divided into three chapters/timelines: 1. The Mole (one week), 2. The Sea (one day) and 3. The Air (one hour). This sensibly divvies up the coming action to help keep perspective of events and duration through the eyes of the soldiers on the beach, the men and women who helped rescue them in their boats and the RAF pilots assigned to protect them all against the Luftwaffe.
The attention to accurate period detail by the filmmakers is amazing, especially for an amateur historian (like me). Nolan found actual boats, both civilian and military, used during the evacuation, and era-correct Spitfire fighter planes as well as the individual kit and uniforms of the stranded soldiers. “Dunkirk” is a well-documented historical depiction of a little known (to many Americans) rescue mission that changed the direction of the war against Nazi Germany.
All the above praise for the technical achievement by Nolan and company, while well-deserved, does not make a complete story. The huge cast represents the courage, fortitude and bravery – and some not so brave – of the British and French who threw in their best to save the army.
Mark Rylance, and his young crewman, represents the brave civilians who rose to the rescue in their small boats. Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden are two Spitfire pilots rep’ing the RAF’s mission to save and protect the evacuation. Music heartthrob Harry Styles does not quite represent the soldiers on the b each with a covertly selfish agenda. Kenneth Branagh, as Dunkirk’s ranking British officer, Commander Bolton, is the dedicated officer risking life and limb to save his men. There are many other roles played in this, literally, cast of thousands.
The historical action and details outshines the individual stories that are not played out in dramatic detail. What happens to the men is more visceral and matter-of-fact than theatrical drama. With so many players and shifts between the week, the day and the hour overlapping the narration, we get to know precious little of their motivations and fears.
With all this said, “Dunkirk” is a finely crafted examination of a historical event that changed the direction of the war. Sure, it was an utter defeat for the Allies who lost virtually all their heavy weapons and escaped with the shirts on their backs. But, the rescue was a morale boost for the beleaguered British people and planted the seed that led to the unconditional defeat of Hitler and the Nazis. I give it a B+.
Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead) is one of a group of six British soldiers trying to navigate a coastal town under sniper fire. He's the only one who makes it to the beach where the Royal Navy's Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) is attempting to coordinate the evacuation of 400,000 Allied troops, forced into a corner by the German Army. Bolton's the only one who knows about Operation Dynamo, the mobilization of civilian rescue boats. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance, "Bridge of Spies") pilots Moonstone, his pleasure yacht, with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter's friend George (Barry Keoghan, "'71"), towards the pillars of black smoke on the horizon 26 miles from Weymouth on the English coast. RAF pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) leads three Spitfires in the same direction, taking on the Messerschmitts bombing "Dunkirk."
Writer/director Christopher Nolan's ("The Dark Knight," "Interstellar") immersive eyewitness accounting of the Dunkirk evacuation, a turning point in WWII, places us under fire, plunges us into the ocean and corners us like rats in a bullet ridden trawler. Shot on a combination of IMAX and 65mm film by director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema ("Her," "Interstellar"), the visual experience is powerfully cinematic, but much like Nolan's "Interstellar," Hans Zimmer's ("The Dark Knight," "Interstellar") score aurally assaults us, so intrusively high in the mix we often strain to hear dialogue. Nolan's unusual scaling of time works to a degree, the one hour of Farrier's mission repeated from different perspectives on the sea (one day) and on land (one week, titled 'The mole' for the narrow pier jutting out from the Dunkirk beach), but one also wonders if it might have worked better with a more traditional timeline, building tension on the beach before introducing the desperately awaited boats and Spitfires. The film's editing can be disorienting even within a single timeline. "Dunkirk" is a spectacular achievement in many ways, but I wouldn't even call it Nolan's best film, let alone a full blown masterpiece.
Once Tommy's on the beach, he tries to join a line of waiting soldiers only to be pointed towards another. He finds a French soldier, Gibson (Aneurin Barnard, "Bitter Harvest"), burying a body on the beach and helps the man for a drink of water. After a strafing, the two find an injured man on a stretcher who is still alive and they race down the beach, pushing through the thousands on the deteriorating mole to a waiting Red Cross ship. They're ordered off. Moments later it's been sunk. The two will later make it onto a destroyer, Gibson staying on deck, Tommy going below for tea, bread and jam. Tommy meets Alex (One Direction's Harry Styles) who wonders why his friend didn't join him just as Gibson witnesses a torpedo heading towards them. It's Gibson who gets an entryway opened, allowing Tommy and Alex escape. A rescue boat refuses to take them on, advising them to stay calm and float until another boat arrives or head back to the beach. They head back, joining up with nine others who go outside the perimeter towards a beached trawler. It's lifted by the tide, but riddled with bullets. Tommy and Alex swim towards a destroyer, but that too is being abandoned, having been hit by a Messerschmitt.
It is at that point that they will meet up with the Moonstone, which has picked up the shellshocked survivor of a torpedoed ship (Cillian Murphy, "Free Fire") whose panic at returning to Dunkirk has had dire consequences, and Collins (Jack Lowden, "Denial"), a ditched Spitfire pilot saved from his flooding, jammed cockpit by Peter. The three Spitfires which took off from England are down to one, Farrier's, whose fuel gauge is smashed and whose fuel is running low. His exploits are viewed from the Moonstone, his appearance over the beach cheered by those below. Commander Bolton's smile fades as he notices the Spitfire is only gliding.
There is little in the way of characterization, most of the huge ensemble cast in survival mode. Branagh supplies most of the film's exposition, discussing options with Army Colonel Winnant (James D'Arcy, "Hitchcock," TV's 'Broadchurch'), as well as embodying the emotion of the 'Dunkirk spirit' as civilian boats appear on the horizon. Hardy achieves a lot with a little, his face obscured by a mask, his eyes expressing anxiety, concern and conviction. One Direction fans looking forward to Styles's first movie role should be forewarned that his is the most unlikable character here (no Germans are ever actually seen), his fight for survival self-centered. Rylance is always a joy, his sympathetic treatment of the shellshocked soldier and silent approval of his son's compassion in the throes of grief moving.
The film is being shown in many formats and having experienced IMAX digital and 70mm, the latter is the way to go, the film more alive on screen (if you are lucky enough to see it in IMAX 70mm, the larger screen affords more grandeur). The technical achievement of the cinematography cannot be overstated, especially within the cramped confines of the Spitfire cockpits (while some of the cockpit footage was captured on a soundstage, much of it was filmed in flight). The Moonstone was shot on a Dutch lake, impressively standing in for the Atlantic while the land sequences were shot on location on Dunkirk's beach. Zimmer's score utilizes everything from Nolan's ticking watch, overworked violins and the insistent drone of boat motors which builds in pitch as the film progresses.
Nolan's film gives us an impression of the waiting, the desperation, the hopelessness and hope of those days in early June, 1944, but it is not as permeated by the 'spirit of Dunkirk' as Lone Scherfig's "Their Finest" nor as overwhelmingly moving as Joe Wright's five minute tracking scene in "Atonement." We never get a true sense that 700 private boats sailed to Dunkirk, at most seeing a couple dozen at one time. The most emotional moments in Nolan's film are the smaller ones, a soldier slipping into the sea swimming towards home, a young hero recognized in a local newspaper.
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