Movie Review: Nolan immerses us all in the harrowing history of “Dunkirk”

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A master filmmaker with all the state-of-the-art resources due a man who produces sci-fi and comic book blockbusters turns his attention to history with breathless, stunning results in “Dunkirk.”

Christopher Nolan transforms the legend of Britain’s “miracle” retreat from the Fall of France into a harrowing, immersive blast of Greatest British Generation fear and dread, a thrilling, pulse-pounding experience that is the best film of the summer and an early Best Picture favorite.

 

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It’s ancient history to generations now, people who grew up with stars like Tom Hardy (as an RAF pilot) and pop singer-turned-actor Harry Styles (as a soldier trapped on the beach). But Nolan’s masterpiece brings real history — in brisk, visceral and fictionally-augmented strokes — to life.

A fortuitous bit of timing puts this movie into theaters as Western values and civilization are under assault, from without and within, like no time in recent memory.

Seventy-seven springs ago the Nazi Blitzkrieg rolled through Dutch, Belgian, British and French forces and broke the back of Western Europe. The British Expeditionary Force, the only land army that could resist an invasion of the United Kingdom, was trapped, along with other Allied forces, in a tiny pocket along the French/Belgian coast. With little air cover to keep German bombers at bay and U-Boats from sinking their ships, no port big enough to handle a mass evacuation, all was lost.

Staring out across the English Channel, the Royal Navy commander in charge of the departure (Kenneth Branagh) mutters, “You can practically SEE it.”

“It” is “home.”

But there is only one “mole” (a breakwater-pier for loading deep-draft ships). The Germans are bombing and strafing it. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers are exposed on a vast open beach. Waiting. What to do?

In pure “Keep calm and carry on” desperation, the Navy summons “the Small Boat Corps,” a fleet of “little ships,” requisitioned pleasure boats, fishing trawlers, motor-sailors and the like, that could come all the way up the shallow waters off the beach and fetch that army.

Nolan tells this emotional, nerve-racking story in its three theaters of action. “The Mole” recounts the desperate efforts, sometimes devolving into “every man for himself,” to stay alive on the beach and get a boat for home.

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We see that largely through the eyes of three foot-soldiers (Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles), with the story starting one week before this anti-D-Day reaches its climax.

“The Sea” follows the owner (Mark Rylance), his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his son’s pal George (Barry Keoghan) as they dodge Royal Navy supervision and sail their 35 foot yacht Moonstone “into war” on the last day of the evacuation.

And “The Air” details the limited Royal Air Force contingent spared for what was thought to be an exercise in mortal futility. Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden and a radio voice from 1968’s “The Battle of Britain” (and Nolan’s Dark Knight movies) are RAF pilots in the last, most desperate hour.

It’s a movie told largely without names, and with long stretches of no dialogue and near-silence — shell-shocked soldiers too nervous to speak, wind and the sea bashing the beach and breakwater into a dense, foamy meringue —  interrupted by the deafening scream of Stuka dive bombers (which had sirens designed to terrify those on the ground), ear-splitting explosions.

Nolan parks the camera at sea level, letting the audience feel the unspoken sailor’s prayer that must have dominated the thoughts of skippers taking their little boats into harm’s way — “Lord, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.” Moonstone and other tiny craft are dwarfed by departing warships, giving one and all a sense of the enormity of the undertaking and the doom they must surely face.

Cillian Murphy makes the strongest acting impression, a rattled survivor of a sinking plucked from the sea by the Moonstone. His maniacal determination to “not go BACK there” inspires the film’s most poetic line, summing up duty and facing down impossible tasks, delivered by Moonstone’s skipper.

“There’s no running away from this, son.”

The air-to-air combat is some of the most realistic ever re-created. It’s no video game when the other pilot is hellbent on killing you, or avoiding you killing him. Every distraction or lapse in concentration could kill you, every calculation — about fuel, the odds, your “real” mission — means life-or-death.

Ships sink and we’re trapped below with panicked soldiers and sailors. Vast crowds of demoralized men helplessly duck, in perfect sync, at the strafing/bombing runs of the Germans.

Nolan’s camera has us trapped with them — on ships and planes that roll over and drop beneath the waves, in exposed positions where Germans can shoot everything and everyone to pieces, on a little wooden boat that has no business puttering into combat.

The characters are war movie archetypes, and the most archetypal scenes are the interplay between Branagh’s naval officer and an army Col (James D’Arcy), expositional conversations about the stakes for Western Civilization, the hopeless best-case scenario, “home” and the desperation of their situation. Archetypes or not, Branagh, D’Arcy and Rylance are understated and give the film its gravitas.

Younger actors, covered in oil and fear, generate the clock-ticking-down panic. Heroism here is limited. This is about simple survival.

The fact that Nolan packs all this immersive action and national myth into a 106 minute movie should put every assembly-line technician/director conjuring up bloated two and a half hour wallows in digital spider men, apes, robots and raccoons to shame.

Great directors make great movies. And with “Dunkirk,” Christopher Nolan has made his second masterpiece, thrilling history retold, remembered and relished.

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(BOX OFFICE: “Dunkirk” floats away with the weekend.)

MPAA Rating:PG-13 for intense war experience and some language

Cast: Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy, Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles

Credits Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan. A Warner Brothers release.

Running time: 1:46

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9 Responses to Movie Review: Nolan immerses us all in the harrowing history of “Dunkirk”

  1. Craig fraser says:

    Only one other Masterpiece? Which one are you referring to?

    • davidj1973 says:

      I can’t speak for him, but if it were me, I’d say Memento. From there I would go with Inception, then Insomnia, and then it trickles off into banality.

  2. PL says:

    What is the other masterpiece ? 🙂 and i can’t wait to see this movie tomorrow !!

  3. Joey says:

    Indeed, as far as I’m concerned this is his 7th masterpiece. What is the other one you are referring too? I’m curious.

  4. R. Wells says:

    I could not disagree with this review more. While visually stunning, Nolan gave us very little in terms of 3-dimensional characters and anyone not already familiar with the Dunkirk evacuation would be left in the dark as to what happened.

    Nowhere in this “masterpiece” does a Nolan have a consistent timeline. The impression one is left with is that then”little ships” ferried men from the beach back to to England, when in fact they ferried multiple loads of men from the shore to the larger ships.

    Nor do we see how the soldiers actually were on the beach. The film appears to show the men standing in lines the entire time, when they were generally seated in groups.

    Where is the massive array of ranks, trucks, halftracks and other equipment left on the beach? Where is Admiral Tennent, who stayed on the beach to the last minute, using a bullhorn to call British troops to be evaded?

    This was a film with no view of the HUNDREDS of “little ships” so it lacks both the breadth and depth on the characters that are shown.

    This is Nolan’s Masterpiece? No, it is far from.

    • Oh…my. I don’t know where to begin, as you seem to have utterly missed the point. Which is that film, by nature, is but a sketch of reality, and this is a masterful impressionistic sketch of the various realities of Dunkirk — myopic, demoralized men, trapped on the beach, stoic but resigned leadership, overmatched but dutiful and sacrificial fighter pilots and plucky boat owners keeping calm and carrying on. It’s his best film, and his most human, because it keeps things on a human dimension. Plainly you’re more of a “Longest Day” fan and I will leave you to wallow in that “more/excess is better” slop.

      • R. Wells says:

        Cal Long this move “Dunkirk” was the mistake.

        There was little of the emotion, heroism, near-disaster that was the Dunkirk evac. In fact, anyone who did not know the actual facts of the event would be lost as to what the big deal was.

        I am hard pressed to tell you who any of the characters were, let alone care about them. The film was a flat sketch, devoid of color and bereft of any real plot line.

        You seem so entranced by the notion of the t being from Chris Nolan you didn’t view the film through those eyes.

        Can you even name a character from the film?

      • Not sure who “Cal Long” is, but in any event…
        I am not a Nolan worshipper, but when he makes a movie that’s about something, it’s worth praising. He need never make another comic book blockbuster if he doesn’t want to. And if you can’t hear the emotion in Rylance’s voice, grasp the horror in Murphy’s mania, see the awful calculus Tom Hardy (Farrier, character’s name — not important – these are iconic figures) just shows us in his eyes, or feel the grim weight of what Branagh is carrying, you’re missing something that the rest of us bring to the movie theater. Heart.

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