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.
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 relatable, resonant 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. That adds weight and relevance to what could have just been another sentimental if gripping and entertaining bit of “Their Finest Hour” nostalgia.
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 and E-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 and shelling 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.
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 43 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 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) and 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 (Rylance).
“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 Colonel (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.
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