It took me a while to figure out what bothered me about Dunkirk. All those five-star reviews were right: Breathtaking scenes, daring structure and emotional payoff. It was all there, at a scale seldom seen before.
Then it hit me: There isn’t a single original narrative in the film. Portraits of down-to-earth heroism have been done before and Dunkirk doesn’t break any new ground. Furthermore, writer/director Christopher Nolan’s favorite trick, messing with chronology for maximum effect, is more distractive than anything and I have serious doubts there was need for it.
That said, Dunkirk hits such highs, any shortcoming dwarves by comparison.
The film unfolds in three setup entwined together, but not necessarily concurrent. The first is the beach of Dunkirk, France, where 400,000 Allied soldiers wait for evacuation, surrounded by Nazi forces and intermittently attacked from above. We witness the havoc through the eyes of Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead), a young private initially without other calling than coming out of this alive.
The second stage is a pleasure boat commanded by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance). Because the waters of Dunkirk are too shallow for destroyers to dock (and Churchill’s reluctance to lose ships ahead of the unavoidable Battle of England), small vessels became the only likely solution. Without any defense mechanism, these boats were at the mercy of the Luftwaffe.
Cue the third scenario: A couple of Royal Air Force pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden), who have to stretch themselves to protect ships and soldiers from prying German aircrafts.
The dogfights between Brits and Nazi biplanes are the highlights of a film full of exceptional moments. Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar) use every corner of an IMAX screen in breathtaking fashion. Unlike most aerial battles we have seen on screen, we have a good idea of the position and distance between the aircrafts, as well as the challenges of piloting one of these machines.
Christopher Nolan is often described as a cerebral filmmaker. Dunkirk should put that idea to rest. In spite of the tremendous scale of the endeavor, Nolan insists on keeping it at human level. Whitehead, Rylance and Hardy, each one more soulful than the next, display stealth heroism, the one that comes from being a decent human being as opposed to a showboat.
Their storylines are enriched by half dozen others that add texture to this massive canvas: The soldier with PTSD (Cillian Murphy) unwilling to head back to Dunkirk, the scared kid adopting extreme measures to survive, the officer who won’t abandon his post until the last man has abandoned the beach. A commonality among all these narratives: Justice is not an external force, but can only materialize from men doing the right thing.
The narrative gimmick of the three timelines pays off very late in the game, when all the storylines come together. While the usefulness of the approach is debatable, there is significate emotional payoff. Dunkirk is a visceral experience: There is practically no gore in display, yet you feel every bullet (probably because of the cranked-up Dolby Surround system at the IMAX theatre I saw it). A particular scene featuring Hardy flying over the beach dead-stick is guaranteed to tighten your throat.
Dunkirk is not perfect. If the dogfights are pure cinematic elegance, the scenes in the water are confusing and hard to follow. Once again, it’s difficult to understand what the heck is Tom Hardy saying: Instead of a Bane’s breathing apparatus, Hardy wears the regulatory fighter pilot mask. Either way, he mumbles. Also, the idea of “working together, there is no telling what we can accomplish” is not exactly groundbreaking.
Perhaps these imperfections are the ones that will make Dunkirk endearing in the long run. There is nothing clinical about it, just good old-fashioned elbow grease filmmaking. Sometimes, it’s all it takes. Four and a half fighting prairie dogs.
Dunkirk opens tonight everywhere. Look for the biggest screen available.