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

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Connor Bynum // Film Critic

DUNKIRK
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

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.

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