Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is a masterpiece of a war film that is a must see for any fans of the genre. The battle and evacuation of Dunkirk have been very rarely touched by filmmakers and for that reason, this film is a fresh look at a part of World War II that is largely forgotten.
To give an accurate breakdown, during the timeframe of 26 May – 4 June 1940, it was a full 18 months before America enters the war with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The Nazi war machine is at its peak. After overrunning Poland, the Germans sliced thru Belgium and France, the British and French are a defeated army trying to get to England to prepare for the invasion that was thought to be coming.
Nolan doesn’t care if the audience knows that or not, there are no sweeping history lessons, no politicians or generals making speeches or moving big flags across a map. This film is about the ordinary soldiers and opens with a squad of infantry already on the run with the Germans on their heels just blocks from the beach.
The film and Nolan’s filmmaking feel like a documentary and he builds an incredible amount of tension. The soldiers, packed tightly in formations on the beach look up in dread at the sight of the Stuka dive bombers lining up for a bombing run. No one knows what is about to happen, there is nowhere to run and the men are sitting ducks in the open.
There is a distinct lack of blood and gore here, instead, the tension, the suspense, realism, and the filming, done in IMAX brings the viewer onto the beaches. You are not an observer, but part of the chaos and uncertainty flooding the beaches. The musical score does a fantastic job of lending, even more, tension to the action. Like a ticking time clock, it sets one on edge and keeps you there throughout the film.
The Germans are the unseen enemy without a face. Yes, the machine guns and rifles bark constantly and the planes zip overhead at regular intervals but the Germans are like an invading alien horde. Without a human face attached to it, they are the monsters licking at the British soldier’s heels.
Nolan breaks down the evacuation in three parts, one if by land (which lasts a week), two if by sea (which lasts a day) and three if by air (which lasts an hour). It is a juggling act where he breaks off one scene and jumps immediately into another and in another timeframe. While confusing at times, it lends itself superbly to the tense, dread that permeates the film from the opening shot to the final frame.
Kenneth Branagh, as Commander Bolton is the closest we’ll get to intense character development but the film doesn’t care about that. The character IS the 330,000+ men stranded on the beaches. However, Branagh’s character based on an actual person is the quintessential British hero. Understated, calm, with a deep compassion for the men he must get off the beach.
And while his eyes betray the difficulty that job entails, his “stiff-upper lip” English countenance never lets the slightest doubt to be visible to the sailors and men with this unenviable task. The only emotion we see from Bolton is when he spots the flotilla of tiny English fish and pleasure boats answering the call.
Because Nolan doesn’t overdo the dramatics of the boats arriving, they are just pinpricks on the horizon, bobbing up and down in the French surf. There aren’t the thousands of boats to a musical fanfare, just a few scattered, tiny boats with much more to come. But as Branagh says when asked what does he see in the distance, “home.” Absolutely brilliant.
Academy Award winner Mark Rylance puts in another fantastic performance as British civilian Mr. Dawson, who, with his son and a friend pilots his small boat from England. Like an old warhorse, Dawson is running right to the sounds of the guns rather than away. But with the understated brilliance he showed in “A Bridge of Spies”, he stays calm and tries to keep his young charges the same, even after they pick up a shell-shocked soldier who was torpedoed off another rescue ship.
Tom Hardy puts in a terrific performance while having no more than a dozen lines in the film. He is Farrier, a Spitfire pilot and we actually see his face very few times, like his character Bane from the Batman series. He wears an oxygen mask for most of the film, as he flies over the beaches and takes on German aircraft. But Hardy’s eyes are what tells the story as he scans the skies for the Luftwaffe and continuously checks his fuel which is running low.
CGI was kept at a minimum, Nolan supposedly had thousands of extras and cardboard cutouts on the beaches. The aerial sequences are superb as the pilots do their own death’s dance high above the ocean. With the filming done in the cramped quarters of the old planes, the realism is striking. Reportedly Nolan purchased a restored Nazi bomber for $5 million dollars just to crash it.
The sinking of the ships after being hit with bombs and torpedoes is the height of suspense. As the soldiers and sailors scramble out from under the ship as she turns over threatening to take the men down with her. It is claustrophobic, scary as hell as realistic as I care to ever get to a sinking ship.
Dunkirk isn’t a film about heroics or an over-the-top patriotism parade. It is a gritty, story about survival. Not everything that happens on the beaches are things the soldiers would care to remember. But they persevere and get over 330,000 men off the French coast and back to England. The British and French lost over 68,000 troops in casualties during the battle. And this film was made in a tribute to them.
See this film in an IMAX theater, you’ll be glad you did. This film will clean up at the Academy Awards when it comes to cinematography and musical score. There were only two points that I could find that didn’t pass the realism test and the strange part is one is in the opening scene and the other in the final one.
The first is admittedly a tiny one, British soldiers pluck leaflets out of the sky urging them to surrender. They’re in full color. Having read books on Dunkirk and seen the photos the original ones were in black and white. Granted, it is something only a military film buff would recognize. The second, however, was a bit of a whopper. As Hardy’s Spitfire runs out of fuel high above the beach, he begins coasting down to the shore. A German dive bomber is lining up the troops for a strafing run. And Hardy/Farrier takes them out in one pass as his plane plummets to earth with no fuel. That dog won’t hunt. But it doesn’t take away from an overall outstanding war film and will quickly become a must see and must add to any military war film collection.
However, it doesn’t take away from an overall outstanding war film and will quickly become a must see summer blockbuster and must add to any military war film collection.
Photo courtesy IMDB, YouTube