In his relatively short Hollywood career, Christopher Nolan has proven to be one of the best directors working today. When it comes to psychological thrillers and mind-bending sci-fi, there’s nobody better in the business. The movies in his Dark Knight trilogy are considered among the best superhero movies of all time. Truthfully, out of Nolan’s 9-film resume, the only film of his I didn’t really like was Interstellar (and that’s only because of the final 30 minutes). His latest motion picture, Dunkirk, is most definitely not the type of movie you would expect from him, but Dunkirk is possibly the greatest movie of Nolan’s entire career.
At the end of May in 1040, thousands of French, British, Dutch and Belgian soldiers were being evacuated from France as German forced moved in. Their only way out was by sea, so as the soldiers were trapped on the beach awaiting rescue, every possible seaworthy vessel was being sent to the beaches of Dunkirk to bring the soldiers home. Meanwhile, German bombers were flying above trying to stop the retreat. The movie starts as the soldiers began their wait to get home, and shows the events from four distinct points of view.
The first and, in my opinion, most prominent story focuses on Tommy, a young soldier continually trying to get off the beach along with his fellow soldiers. He struggles to survive as he moves from ship to ship while the Germans drop bombs from above. The sections of the movie focusing on the soldiers are clearly meant to be the draw and, despite the lack of much dialogue or familiar faces, work fantastically. Watching these young men running for their lives, knowing that their odds of survival are devastatingly low, is tough.
The next, and by far best, story is about the British fighter pilots who are flying above trying to keep the air safe from the German bombers. The main pilot, played by Tom Hardy, is easily the best character in the entire movie. Anyone who is familiar with Hardy’s work is well aware of what a powerful actor he is, and even though he spends the entirety of the film in the cockpit of a fighter plane, he still manages to bring more to his role than anyone else in the film. The plane scenes are the glue that holds the movie together, as they are the common link between all the other stories. I truly could have watched an entire movie focusing on Hardy’s character, Farrier.
Another focus in the film is on one of the private boats sent to help in the rescue of the soldiers. As Mr. Dawson, played by Oscar winner Mark Rylance, steers his ship towards the beach, he come across the lone surviving soldier (Cillian Murphy) of a destroyed ship. The nameless survivor immediately starts to refuse to head back to the beach he just escaped from, and conflict begins to arise. Of the four separate stores, this one is the most removed from the others. It does work in the end, but when the focus shifts to the boat sections, the momentum of the film starts to slow. The payoff is worth the wait, though.
The weakest story is sadly the one featuring Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton. These sections are actually pointless, and could be removed without impacting the plot of the film whatsoever. Branagh is one of the greatest living actors, but he brings nothing to the character. The sole purpose of this role is to stand there and tell his fellow generals that he is sure rescue will come. If it amounted to a couple scenes at the beginning and end of the movie it would have been fine. Instead he appears far too often, and the scenes just kill the excitement from the rest of the film. Luckily the rest of he movie works so well that it overshadows these weaker scenes.
As for the overall movie, the only thing that I didn’t care for was the way the timeline is set up. The scenes are not shown chronologically, and it can be distracting if you don’t pay close attention throughout the rest of the film. We may see Hardy’s character shoot down a plane, only to see the same scene from a different point of view 45 minutes later. At other times, it switches from day to night and back again at every scenes. I guess when connecting for different stories some things may seem out of place, but when you need to think back to an hour earlier to figure out what his happening in a particular scene it can be a bit frustrating.
Small complaints aside, Dunkirk really is one of the best Christopher Nolan films, and also the best World War II movie since Saving Private Ryan. Though some of today’s greatest actors appear in the movie, that is not the reason to see it. The fact that this is based on a real event in history should be reason enough to watch it. Another plus for some people is that while violent, the movie is surprisingly gore free. You won’t see bodies blown apart, or insides on the outside. We may actually have a deadly serious, real life war drama that you could potentially bring your older kids to in order to show them the horrors of war. I also recommend watching this on the big screen other than on the TV. Nolan makes his movies for the theatrical experience, and you should watch it as such.
FINAL REVIEW: A