He’s made more clever, often mind-bending films. He’s been at the helm of more elaborate, character-driven movies. But never has director Christopher Nolan created something so intimate, heroic and horrific as ‘Dunkirk’.
A likely Oscar nominee (and if it isn’t, something is very, very wrong with the nomination process), Nolan’s relentless epic is the best war movie in years. In fact, it ranks up there with the best of them – and it doesn’t require a sweeping, grandiose plot to do it. This is a story of human survival, and not a lot else.
…and in the case of ‘Dunkirk’, that’s more than enough to tell the tale.
In May 1940, Hitler’s forces pushed almost 400,000 Allied soldiers to France’s port of Dunkirk, and its nearby beaches. Trapped, desperate, and almost in sight of Britain’s white cliffs only 26 miles away, the young men were sitting ducks for the Nazis – and the movie brilliantly captures the collective fear and will to survive into three acts which, in a nod to Churchill, tangles with the enemy on land, on sea, and in air.
The first features a young Brit (Fionn Whitehead) ducking and dodging German snipers on his way to a big getaway ship. But he and a group of fellow soldiers (including One Direction’s Harry Styles in his big screen debut) discover that evacuation is far from simple, as they bounce from one death trap to another; i.e., if the torpedo’s don’t get you, the oil fires dancing on the surface of the seawater surely will.
The second involves a civilian boat pilot (Mark Rylance), heeding the call to doggedly chug toward France to help transport soldiers off the beach. But before he can even get close to land, he’s picking up downed, shell-shocked pilots (including Cillian Murphy) and survivors of capsized ships. It’s as chaotic as you can imagine.
The third act transpires overhead, as ace Tom Hardy takes care of business, battling not only German pilots in vicious dogfights, but his rapidly decreasing fuel tank.
Put it all together and you have an amazing period piece packed with so much pressure, the whole movie feels like a ticking time bomb…something reflected in Hans Zimmer’s pulse-pounding soundtrack. This is grand-scale movie making, something Nolan is certainly used to, yet ‘Dunkirk’ is like nothing he’s ever done before. It’s an exhilarating sit, but an unnerving one that will hopefully act as a very, very valuable history lesson.