Movie Review: ‘DUNKIRK’ – Christopher Nolan puts audience at center of WWII’s miracle of deliverance


Connor Bynum // Film Critic

Rated PG-13,
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Fionn WhiteheadDamien BonnardAneurin BarnardBarry KeoghanMark RylanceTom Glynn-CarneyTom HardyCillian MurphyJack Lowden and Kenneth Branagh

Agent of chaos

Director Christopher Nolan has had an extraordinary career. As time has moved on, Nolan has increasingly matured as a filmmaker. This can be seen in his new film DUNKIRK that focuses the allied evacuation of France in 1940, an event Winston Churchill famously called “a colossal military disaster.” The film however is anything but, and is one of Nolan’s greatest works to date.

DUNKIRK focuses its story on three locations: the beach, the sea, and the air. At the beach, a young soldier named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is forced to fight for his survival as he and 400,000 other allied soldiers are surrounded by German forces and desperately wait for rescue. On the sea, an elderly Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and two young men answer the call for civilian boat owners to make their way across the English Channel to offer aid. And lastly in the air, three pilots led by a man called Farrier (Tom Hardy) attempt to defend allied boats and ships from enemy bombers and fighters.

Being a Nolan film, it isn’t all that surprising that the story is told in a somewhat unconventional way. The three storylines each cover different lengths of time but are played equally throughout the film, offering different perspectives for the same events. The events on the beach cover one week, the events on the boats cover one day, and the events in the air only cover one hour.

While certainly an interesting approach, it can understandably be jarring for the audience at times. This actually helps draw out one of the primary themes in the film: chaos. Characters in all three timelines are cut off from each other and therefore ignorant of any semblance of a big picture. Many of the young soldiers are clearly in over their heads and have no understanding of the events around them; they just want to get home. By cutting up the chronological order of the events on screen, the audience is left just as confused as they are. While things can become a little hard to follow by the climax of the film, this method is mostly successful and a second viewing would probably clear up any confusion.

Three soldiers — Harry Styles, left, as Alex, Aneurin Barnard as Gibson, and Fionn Whitehead as Tommy — await evacuation in the action thriller ‘DUNKIRK.’ Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Christopher Nolan is on his way to becoming the master of IMAX filmmaking. Ever since his work on THE DARK KNIGHT, what could easily have been dismissed as a marketing gimmick has become a brilliant tool in visual storytelling. The looming scale of the opening shot establishes that the characters are overtaken by the scope by the war. As with most IMAX films, the aspect ratio switches back and forth from encompassing the whole screen to black bars on the top and bottom. In contrast to the obnoxious use of this transition seen in the recent TRANSFORMERS film, Nolan is sure to only switch back from IMAX footage when it benefits the story. For example, a sequence near the end of the film features both the sea and air timelines, but they are showing events that while close, are not happening at the same time. Nolan switches between the two aspect ratios to subtly imply that these events are not connected by separating them visually.

Another benefit of seeing DUNKIRK in IMAX comes from the truly incredibly sound design. An opening shootout in city streets features some of the most terrifying and realistic sounds of gunfire I have ever heard in a film. Once again, Nolan uses the technical aspects of filmmaking to subject audiences into feeling just as overwhelmed and out of place as the young men on screen. Be warned, the sound design in the film’s more intense scenes is likely to shock audiences.

DUNKIRK is arguably Nolan’s most mature film to date. This is not necessarily in terms of adult content, but in tone and subject matter. Everything is handled with the most intensive care and attention to detail. While the non-linear method in which the story is told can be distracting at times, for the most part DUNKIRK is a masterful film.

Grade: A-

DUNKIRK opens nationwide on Friday (7/21).

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.