Film review: dunkirk
Written by Andrew Busch, Staff Writer
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk opened on July 21st in both the United Kingdom and the United States, but has already been receiving glowing reviews for a couple of weeks. As you can probably guess from the title the plot is based on the Battle of Dunkirk where Axis forces pushed back Allies in France forcing a retreat to the coast of the English Channel during World War II. This trapped over 400,000 allied soldiers on the French coast where the only option was to sit and wait for the slow-trickle of evacuation as thousands of soldiers died each day, both on land and at sea.
This sounds like the set-up of a classic war movie brimming with sappy patriotism. While this nationalistic piece is inseparable from almost every dramatization of the past, Dunkirk is much more than a typical war film. It takes some risks and defies the boundaries of its genre in the process. In fact, Nolan’s skillful adaptation of this historic event might just have become the greatest World War II movie of all time.
One key component of Dunkirk that allows it to surpass previous entries in the World War II genre is the film’s narrative style. The story is broken up into three parts with each told from a different perspective. These stories range from a British private named Tommy struggling to get a spot on an evacuation vessel to an old man and his son taking their family vessel across the English Channel hoping to help British soldiers in distress. The multiple perspectives alone make the scope of the film feel expansive. And when paired with the spiraling and non-linear narrative structure Nolan’s film becomes more interesting than a simple point A to B retelling. Instead, Dunkirk keeps you guessing how each of its stories relate to one another, and the swirling narrative adds to the authentic feeling of chaos that each of its characters experiences.
Nolan’s film also perfects the art of aviation. Its Spitfire sequences that pit Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) against groups of German Messerschmitts are some of Dunkirk’s most thrilling moments. These dogfights also sport some impressive visuals. Smoking planes spiral toward the water and close-ups of pilots convey genuine terror as the desperate group of remaining British Spitfires do everything they can to defend the soldiers waiting for evacuation. Each scene is a mechanical ballet where two-ton machines gracefully pirouette above the English Channel alongside a suspense-building score by Hans Zimmer.
Despite its massive scope and sweeping views, a much more human experience remains at its center.
But perhaps the most important thing that Nolan gets right with Dunkirk is the details and the emotional intimacy that is created on screen. The entirety of this movie is shot in film, so the field of view is larger and the picture has a higher definition. This causes every pore, bruise, stain, and movement to be an important piece of the film. You can see Tommy’s (Fionn Whitehead) scrapes on his knuckles, the way his eyes twitch nervously or how he hunches. Each of these small details and mannerisms brings you closer to the main character and emphasizes the human experience in a way that is surprising for such a multi-layered film.
Dunkirk’s details are where the film shines. The fact that Nolan shot the whole thing on film means you will get even more than you would with any digital production.
At the same time, Nolan surprisingly chooses to withhold one very important detail in this completely detail-oriented film. He makes a deliberate decision to not identify or show who is fighting against the British and French soldiers throughout this film. This choice is revolutionary in the genre of World War II films that often demonize and dehumanize whoever opposes the “good guys”. As a result, Dunkirk stands as an example of how commemoration can be achieved without oversimplification or generalization.
Nolan’s latest film is a testament to how World War II movies can still remain relevant to our changing society. Its emphasis on the human experience and the choice it makes to tell an untold story without being too heavy-handed on patriotism removes the distance between past and present. And when each of these elements are combined with the precise technical craft and unconventional narrative style Dunkirk becomes an unforgettable film and remarkable achievement.
Dunkirk is playing now in theatres. View Andrew's website, Gamefes, here