Dunkirk ★★★★½

From land, air and sea, Dunkirk puts us right into the experience of the massive evacuation of troops from the beaches of France in WW2. The war genre is not something I usually seek out but I've found that I've really enjoyed the stripped-down approach that have an emphasis on ultra-realism and capturing an experience without the use of overly-dramatic or Hollywood-type moments (1917 being the other big example of this). This lack of over-dramatization can make it more suspenseful and dramatic and I found that to be the case with Dunkirk.

I find it interesting Christopher Nolan's most traditional subject matter is one that he tackles with his most ambitious story structure (save for perhaps Memento). I'll admit that the three different timelines moving at different speeds took some adjusting to, but it's a rather brilliant structure that forgoes any of the traditional set-up scenes in favor of sustained tension (Tom Hardy's character would have a bunch of scenes where he is getting briefed on the ground and maybe says goodbye to his family if this was told traditionally to make sure he is a constant presence in the film). Once these timelines come together, it forms some truly special sequences (something that comes to mind is cutting between two scenes involving rising water).

Nolan is able to capture the horror of war without much in the way of graphic content. The sounds of the incoming enemy fighters alone is enough to chill me to the bone. The situations that the soldiers find themselves in are simply terrifying, such as a claustrophobic scene involving holes in a boat that is frightening to think about. Nolan's insistence on filming everything practically gives us shots that we could not get any other way. I lost count how many times my jaw dropped at the scope of the film: the rows of soldiers lining the beach, the aerial shots of the boats going to the rescue and the frightening ground perspective of incoming fighters. Knowing nearly everything was actually filmed gives it just adds a little bit more of a punch.

One of the biggest knocks seems to be the weak characterization. While I didn't necessarily feel any strong personal connection to the characters, I think the characterization is actually strong for what it is going for. There is a lot communicated without words and instead through meaningful glances and the reasons characters have for certain actions. These little character beats sprinkled throughout adds to the humanity of the soldiers without having those scenes where everyone sits around discussing their backstories. All in all, Dunkirk is a technical marvel that captures the scope, horror and desperation of war with Nolan's unique style.

2017 | Christopher Nolan

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