During nine days in late May and early June of 1940, more than 330,000 British, French, Belgian, and Canadian soldiers were evacuated from a beach in the French coastal town of Dunkirk, where they had been trapped by the advancing German army. It was both one of the biggest military blunders and most incredible rescue operations of World War II, an event that could have easily changed the course of the war — and history itself — had not those soldiers been lifted off that beach through the combined efforts of the British Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, and a ragtag flotilla of privately owned fishing boats, pleasure boats, merchant marine ships and even lifeboats that managed to move a massive amount of men off the sand in a relatively short amount of time.
That operation is the subject of the 10th feature film from The Dark Knight, Inception, and Interstellar writer-director, Christopher Nolan, one of the few major filmmakers working today for whom the often-overused term “visionary” is wholly appropriate. With Dunkirk, Nolan has set out to not only immerse the viewer completely and viscerally in the midst of the war and the events at Dunkirk, but also to challenge his own previous ways of making films by altering, experimenting with or reigning in the impulses that he’s been both acclaimed and criticized for in the past.
As a result, Dunkirk is a powerful visual, almost physical experience but often lacks an emotional core. Nolan splits his story into three perspectives: land, sea, and air. The first is told from the viewpoint of two young soldiers (Fionn Whitehead and One Direction’s Harry Styles, generally impressive in his first major screen role) trapped on the beach and waiting to exit, the second from the captain of a private fishing boat (Mark Rylance) headed to Dunkirk with his son and a young mate in tow, and the third from two Air Force fighter pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden), who are tasked with keeping the German Luftwaffe away from strafing the helpless troops sitting nearly defenseless on the beach. Other supporting roles are played by notable actors like Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, and James D’Arcy.
As usual, Nolan plays with time — we meet each of our three factions at different stages of the operation — but instead of the cascading, cross-cutting effect he usually achieves in the third acts of his movies, he launches that kind of rhythm from the get-go and never lets it flag. The pace and atmosphere of Dunkirk are relentless, brutal and even claustrophobic, an interesting achievement for a film set on a decent-sized beach with a vast body of water in front of it. The director quickly establishes the desperation and horror of the situation, particularly in one shot where a soldier lies terrified on the beach in the foreground, hands over his head, as a string of bombs blow up one soldier after another on the sand behind him, the deadly missiles getting closer with every second.
Dunkirk is filled with countless moments like this, as well as genuinely stunning airborne scenes of Hardy and Lowden’s pilots locked in dogfights with enemy aircraft. Shooting on 65mm film (to be projected via 70mm and IMAX), Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (doing his second Nolan project after Interstellar) brings the viewer onto the battlefield and into the skies in a way that often makes one stop breathing (much of the film was shot on the actual Dunkirk beach, adding to its realism). Hans Zimmer’s pulsating score and the endless ticking of a clock that starts and finishes the movie both add to the increasingly tension-filled and fractured narrative unfolding on the screen.
The movie plays as part silent film, part documentary, even including moments at times that are almost impressionistic. While Nolan is known for lots of expository dialogue, he pares it way back here (he has said the script of the film was just 76 pages; the running time is 107 minutes, his shortest since his 1998 indie debut Following). But ironically, this is where he runs into trouble, because his stated objective of keeping the verbiage and characterizations to a minimum — just letting us experience the events and people as they happen or as we meet them — also creates a vacuum where our empathy should be with the men (and small handful of women) on the screen.
Rylance comes across the best as Dawson, a man who has a job to do — albeit an incredibly dangerous and momentous one — and just sets out to do it, even as death and carnage surround him and even climb onto his boat. Hardy, who barely says a word in the film, still registers even behind a flight mask thanks to his always formidable screen presence. It’s Whitehead, Styles and the other soldiers on the ground who suffer the most: in a problem that has plagued other films like Black Hawk Down, we often can’t even tell who’s who, especially in scenes like the one where the men are trying to escape from a sinking boat. The thick regional British accents don’t help matters either. In the end, even as we are left exhausted and stunned by what we’ve watched, there is an underlying lack of emotional connection that leaves the film as chilly as Nolan’s detractors have accused his other pictures of being.
But as with his previous movies, as well as why Nolan remains an extraordinary and important filmmaker, Dunkirk is wildly ambitious and largely successful in its sheer craftsmanship and execution. It’s also subtly unconventional in many ways: We never see the Germans. In fact, I think they’re only referred to as “the enemy;” the Americans are not mentioned; and the director never cuts to a room full of generals bending worriedly over maps. Dunkirk is a more challenging film as a result, both for the viewer and the filmmaker, and if he doesn’t quite stick the landing, which critics have accused him of since The Dark Knight, Nolan always deserves kudos for wanting to go big and push both his own talents and filmmaking itself in new directions. Whether shooting a superhero myth as an urban crime epic or turning the evacuation of 330,000 soldiers into a suspense thriller, he doesn’t take the easy route.
Dunkirk opens in theaters this Friday (July 21).