Starring-Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy
Reviewed July 24, 2017
Of the hundreds of war films that have been made over the years, most have a similar style with either a clear patriotic slant, or, of a questioning/message type nature. Regardless, most have a certain blueprint from the story to the visuals to the direction- and rarely stray from this. The genre is not my particular favorite as the machismo is usually overdone and too many of the films turn into standard “guy films”, or the “good guys versus the bad guys”. Finally, along comes a film like Dunkirk that gives the stale genre a good, swift, kick in the ass.
The story is both simple, yet historical. In 1940, Nazi Germany, having successfully invaded France, pushes thousands of French and British soldiers to a seaside town named Dunkirk. With slim hopes of rescue or survival, the soldiers are sitting ducks for the raid of German fighter planes, who drop bombs both on the soldiers and rescue ships. In parallel stories, a kindly British civilian (Mark Rylance) and his son sail to Dunkirk to help rescue the soldiers, and two British fighter pilots chase the German fighter planes, attempting to thwart their deadly intentions.
One will immediately be struck by the pacing of the film as it is non-stop action from start to close. The action, combined with very little dialogue, and an eerie musical score, are what make the film feel so unique and fresh. Directed by Christopher Nolan, (The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception) critics are heralding this film as his greatest work yet- I tend to agree. Scenes involving such differing musical scores as screechy violins mixed with thunderous, heavy beats, really shake up the film and keep the audience on their toes as to what is coming next.
An interesting facet to the film, and certainly done on purpose, is that the backstories of the characters are not revealed- we know very little about any of them. Do they have families? Are they married? This is a beautiful decision by the screenwriters and by Nolan. For instance, the very first scenes involve a disheveled private, named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead). Panicked, he runs through the streets in pursuit of the beach, where he meets a fellow soldier named Gibson, who is burying another soldier in the sand. Together, they find a wounded soldier and carry him to a departing ship- the men never speak, but communicate through their eyes and gestures-it is a powerful series of scenes.
Another positive to Dunkirk is the anonymity of the enemy. The German soldiers are never shown. Certainly, we see many scenes of the fighter planes overhead, pummeling the soldiers with bombs, and pulsating gunfire in various scenes, but the mystique of the enemy troops is a constant throughout the film. The faceless component to the villains adds a terror and haunting uncertainty. In this way, the film adds to the audiences confusion about where the enemy may be, at any given moment.
The visuals and the vastness of the ocean side beach, forefront throughout the entire film, at one hour and forty six minutes relatively brief for a war film, elicits both beauty and a terrible gloominess. Scenes of the vastness of the beach peppered with thousands of cold and hungry men is both pathetic and powerful.
The best scenes take place on Mr. Dawson’s (Rylance) mariner boat. Aided by his son Peter, and Peter’s frightened schoolmate, the trio head for dangerous Dunkirk to help rescue, but en route pick up a shell-shocked soldier determined to stay as far away from Dunkirk as possible. This leads to compelling drama and a deep characterization of all the central characters.
Many list 1998’s Saving Private Ryan as tops in the modern war genre, but Dunkirk may very well rival that film in intensity and musical effectiveness. Dunkirk also contains shockingly little bloodshed or dismembered soldiers- it does not need this to tell a powerful story. At times emotional, the film is always intense and never lets go of its audience from the very first frame. A war film for the history books and a lesson in film creativity and thoughtfulness.