I would like to start this review off with an apology.
Dunkirk, despite my headline, is not a fun movie.
It is a good movie. One bordering on great, even. The best movie Christopher Nolan’s done in years… and I say that as someone who likes (most, sorry The Dark Knight Rises) Nolan movies. Immersive, riveting, intense. Might give you a heart attack. But not “fun.”
But when have you even known me to pass up an opportunity for a stupid pun? It’s just not done…. kirk.
Christopher Nolan follows up 2014’s space porn extravaganza Interstellar with a terrestrial tale of the evacuation at Dunkirk, which saw a civilian fleet mobilize to save the British army trapped on a French beach in the early days of World War II. This movie is Nolan crystallized—it allows him to double down on the things he’s good at and jettison the things he’s not. It’s a brilliant, breathtaking cinematic experience.
Remember Interstellar? How the worst part of it was Anne Hathaway’s monologue about how love can break the laws of physics or some shit? And you are (I am) sitting there like “Nolan, honey, love ya, but emotional monologues about love are not your forte. Just…. leave it to someone else.” In fact, nobody in Nolan movies seems to have experienced a positive emotion (or had sex). It’s all grr argh mah dead wife and/or girlfriend. That’s his go-to: need to give a male lead something to Emote over? Give ‘em a dead wife! Over. And over. And over. He doesn’t seem to get—or really care that much about—the potential for exploring his characters’ complex inner emotional lives. Not to say that Nolan’s films are devoid of emotion. But he’s not a guy who’s into the softer side of Sears. Which is fine! Nolan is who Nolan is. I don’t expect Todd Haynes to stage jaw-dropping action setpieces or Michael Bay to craft an enduring romance. I think Nolan is a master craftsman of bold, inventive, risk-taking blockbusters. But, as a filmmaker, he’s also a bit of a joyless motherfucker. (If one who really loves MacGruber.)
All of which is to say that Dunkirk is a movie that matches perfectly with Christopher Nolan’s sensibilities. It is a war movie in its purest form: one hour and 46 minutes (under two hours, yaaaaaay!) of characters just trying to survive in terribly adverse circumstances. There’s no room for sentimentality here. There’s barely any room for dialogue, certainly no room for backstory-injecting monologues about guilt complexes and dead wives. (Yeah, you read that right—no one has a dead wife in this movie! You did it, Chris! You did it! Granted, there are like two female extras, and nobody talks about their lives back home anyway. I’m sure if someone did, Nolan would’ve gotten a dead wife into the mix. But I’ll take it. Baby steps.)
However… Dunkirk is neither an empty action spectacle, a la Bay, nor an exercise in grimdark “war is hell” nihilism. The film is peppered throughout with small character moments—of kindness, of selfishness, of bravery, of compassion, of cowardice—that tell us more about these soldiers and civilians than any half-baked speech about “me mam back home” would have. Tom Hardy, as an RAF pilot tasked with stopping German bombers from blowing up fleeing British ships, does more with the top half of his mask-clad face and minimal dialogue than most other actors could do with a full, Oscar clip-ready speech. Newcomer Fionn Whitehead, playing the main British soldier, has a role that’s virtually silent. But you don’t need all that dialogue. Seeing him simply react to the chaos around him is enough.
That’s in large part because Nolan’s done such a damn good job of crafting the chaos. After Dunkirk ended, I felt like I’d been through some shit. This movie is intense. The aerial photography—Hardy and Jack Lowden (of the recent War and Peace miniseries) looping and soaring through the sky, with plane-mounted cameras making Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography extra twisty—is nothing short of spectacular. There are no cutaways to British generals planning the evacuation or German generals planning their attack. In fact, you barely see any Germans at all: they’re in planes and off-screen, raining death from afar. We know what the soldiers knew, which is: A plane could fly overhead any moment and blow you up. Everyone’s trying to escape, but no one knows how to do it. We’re all probably going to die. If you have a drowning phobia, do not see this movie. You will not have a good time. Hans Zimmer’s score, with its emphasis on ticking clock sounds and BRRRRM-type noises reminiscent of an oncoming plane, ramps up the anxiety to a nail-biting degree. (I’m not going to say you should definitely see Dunkirk in this format or that format, because not everyone has easy access to IMAX screens and state-of-the-art sound systems, but I would recommend catching it in the biggest and best format you can manage. I saw it in IMAX 70mm, and I could feel the movie in my chest. Plus, IMAX is the only way you’ll see the whole film.)
The storytelling format will lose some people. From Memento to The Prestige to Inception, Nolan loves him a puzzle box, and that’s what Dunkirk is. Nolan intercuts between three plotlines, one that takes place over the course of a week (the soldiers on the beach), another a day (a civilian boat, captained by Mark Rylance’s character, en route to Dunkirk), the third (the RAF pilots) an hour. Like Inception, it’s really not that hard to pick up once you get the hang of it, but I can see it striking people as unnecessarily convoluted. Personally, I liked piecing together a rounder picture of events from the different perspectives we get sprinkled throughout the three plotlines. It’s interesting. It’s different. And it’s another way of getting me engaged in the proceedings, rather than just being the passive viewer that most movies call for you to be.