Christopher Nolan’s tense and inspirational World War II film Dunkirk is my top movie of 2017 thus far.
This film, with an estimated budget of $150 million and clocking in at just 106 minutes, is written and directed by acclaimed three-time Oscar nominee Christopher Nolan (Inception, Interstellar, Memento (which I re-watched this past week), The Dark Knight Batman trilogy, The Prestige). This is the tenth feature film he has directed, and his second shortest.
This time Nolan takes us to the beaches of Dunkirk, a small coastal town in France in May and June, 1940, for a decisive moment in World War II. The coast of England was nearly visible from Dunkirk, just 26 miles across the English Channel. More than 300,000 Allied troops (British, French and Belgium) were trapped on the beach by the Germans. The harbor was so shallow, that a water rescue with large British ships wasn’t possible. Nolan puts the viewer in the center of the battle from a British point of view.
This is a very “visual” film, as Nolan uses a minimum of dialogue. That’s probably not a bad thing, as the dialogue and accents are difficult to understand. Credit goes here to cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who worked with Nolan on Interstellar. It appears that very little of the film was computer enhanced. We didn’t see the film in IMAX, but this is a film that you would probably want to see in IMAX, if possible.
The action takes center stage over character development. Nolan tells the story of what Winston Churchill called Operation Dynamo – an all-hands call to civilian sailors, asking that they steer any vessel they can across the English Channel to rescue as many of the stranded soldiers as possible – through three interlocking stories, timelines and perspectives – land, sea and air, complete with flashbacks and revisits. He introduces each story with title cards. “The Mole” (land) takes place over a week. The “mole” is actually an 8-foot-wide, half-mile-long breakwater wall, extended off the beaches of Dunkirk, France, that served as a makeshift dock for British leaders trying to evacuate the troops. Five-time Oscar nominee Kenneth Branagh, portrays Commander Bolton, the highest ranking British naval officer on the beach. He is worried about getting his men home. We see Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) grab the stretcher of a wounded man, pretending to be medics in the hope of getting on a ship and saving themselves. They encounter Alex (Harry Styles from the band One Direction in his acting debut). “The Sea” takes place in a single day and features Oscar winner (Bridge of Spies) Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson, a civilian entering into the rescue effort with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his best friend George (Barry Keoghan). The third story, “The Air”, takes place in a single hour. Oscar nominee (The Revenant) Tom Hardy portrays Farrier and Jack Lowden portrays Collins. They are Royal Air Force Spitfire pilots engaged in a tense battle with German planes.
Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack (in his sixth collaboration with Nolan), plays an important role in the tense film, mixing music and sound effects (ticking clock sound using Nolan’s pocket watch). The film is intense from beginning to end. It is rated PG-13 for intense war scenes and some adult language, including the abuse of Jesus’ name.
Themes in this inspirational film include sacrifice, heroism, courage and fear.
A final note. Despite this being an excellent film, it’s a disappointment that the crucial National Day of Prayer for Dunkirk was completely left out of the film. Read about it here.