The “Miracle at Dunkirk” has enthralled people since it transpired on the coast of northern France in the early days of World War II. The “miracle” itself occurred after a large number of Allied forces – including British, French, Canadian and Belgian troops – became cut off by the rapid German advance during the Battle of France. After being pushed right to the sea, the Allies faced almost certain annihilation. They were only saved by the desperate mobilization of over 800 civilian and naval vessels, which together successfully evacuated nearly 350,000 men stranded at the Dunkirk shoreline.
Such a rich, historical backdrop provides excellent fodder for Christopher Nolan’s tenth feature film Dunkrik. Not only is Nolan able to deliver the type of epic spectacle that he has now become synonymous with, but he also reigns in some of his worst proclivities. The narrative bloat and endless exposition that infected past efforts like Inception, The Dark Knight Rises and, especially, Interstellar are not present here. Instead, Dunkirk features stripped-down storytelling that zeros in on sensory experience and craft. It is Nolan’s best film since The Dark Knight and one of the best films of the year.
Now, I should say that Dunkrik is not a perfect film. It’s incredibly slight thematically, expending little effort on critiquing any of the action transpiring on-screen. There are also one or two narrative threads that end up remaining largely unresolved by the story’s end, which you could say wastes some of the story’s innate emotional potential.
Yet the film’s true interests lie elsewhere. Dunkrik is not so much a story about individuals as it is about the collective, complex operation that lead to the salvation of thousands of lives and possibly the war effort as a whole. On that level, the film powerfully and admirably succeeds.
Much of this is due to the non-chronological, multi-faceted structure that Nolan employs. Dunkirk‘s action takes place on the sea, in the air and on land, with each story thread occurring at different points of time. While this proves initially confusing, it ultimately frees Nolan of linear constraints, allowing him to ferociously cross-cut and ramp up the intensity of specific sequences for maximum impact.
Within this multi-angled melee, we do follow a few consistent faces. The land story revolves around a young grunt named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), who keeps looking for an escape from an inescapable situation. The sea story focuses on a civilian sailor named Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), who, along with son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his son’s friend (Barry Keoghan), volunteers to take part in Dunkirk’s nautical evacuation. Finally, the film’s riveting aerial scenes feature a pair of pilots played by Jack Lowden and Nolan regular Tom Hardy, the later appearing in his second consecutive Nolan film with his face half-covered and his speech unintelligible.
All of these actors bring their best to the film, with Rylance and Whitehead being particularly effective. Yet it’s again important to emphasize that Dunkirk’s actors are placed at the service of the experience the film strives to create – not the other way around. Barring one or two exceptions, Nolan’s sparse script brushes over all aspects of character development, omitting these men’s histories, personalities and personal feelings about the war. In fact, when I fired up IMDB I was surprised to learn that he had even bothered to name them!
In 90% of other films, such a lack of character development would bother if not enrage me; yet in Dunkirk it strangely doesn’t matter. That’s because Nolan’s vision in Dunkirk is so singular and powerful, with all aesthetic elements complimenting and playing off one another. The cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema, for instance, is rich and beautiful, equally effective at capturing the epic sweep of Dunkirk’s foamy, body-laden beaches as it is in depicting the dogfights that continually rage above it. Editor Lee Smith, who has worked with Nolan since 2005’s Batman Begins, cuts the film as if his life depends on it, frantically tying together the story’s various non-linear segments into riveting sequences that possess a cohesive tone. Production designer Nathan Crowley, who has also been part of the Nolan camp since the Batman reboot, similarly outdoes himself, delivering again for a director that famously favors the tangible over the computer-generated.
Maybe most impressive is the thundering score by Hans Zimmer, which augments the terrific camerawork and editing of Dunkirk. Zimmer’s work has been a highlight of many past Nolan films, particularly in the first two Batman films and Inception. Still, Dunkirk may be the composer’s most spectacular achievement yet in a Nolan film, if only due to how predominately his score factors into almost every scene. At times, it almost feels as if the music is the element most in the driver seat, relentlessly pushing the action forward, dragging our emotions out with every beat, twist and turn of the story. This immersiveness can also be attributed to the film’s excellent sound design. The crashing of waves, the labored breathing of men and, especially, the screaming of war planes has rarely felt closer or more rattling.
Dunkirk is a remarkable achievement, a muscular, confident and exhausting exercise in a raw cinema that is a unique entry in Nolan’s corpus. It represents the director at his most assured and least self-conscious. Maybe it’s due to the strength of the material. Maybe it’s due to a growing maturity. Whatever the reason, Dunkirk is the film where Nolan is finally able to shut up and simply execute. His trust in the story and in his own abilities seems absolute, and the result is a rousing, apolitical and blessedly unsentimental (although there is one exception) movie about the deliverance found when all seemed lost.