Dunkirk

Dunkirk ★★★★★

"Dunkirk" is about the experience of being in a war. Imagine the first 20 minutes of Spielberg's exceptional WWII epic "Saving Private Ryan" as an entire film to itself and you have an idea of what it feels like to watch Christopher Nolan's latest effort.

The story centers on several areas of action on land, on sea and in the air. On land we meet Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), two young soldiers who find a wounded man on the beach and help to safety aboard a boat against heavy odds. They try to hitch a ride back home, to no avail, while ships around them are bombed by Germans. The young men rescue Alex (One Direction singer Harry Styles), who joins them in an effort to get out of Dunkirk. Tensions arise as the stakes mount during heavy fire and other incidents.

The sea portion is about Mr. Dawson (Oscar-winner Mark Rylance) who is a mariner that has volunteered his boat to help the Navy evacuate soldiers from Dunkirk. Along with him is his teenager son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter's friend George (Barry Keoghan). Together these three wind up on detours to help soldiers who are stranded on the ocean after meeting enemy fire.

Finally, the air finds three Spitfire pilots who attempt to stop enemy attacks from their aircraft. Each will face perils in doing so.

Many critics have made much of Nolan's "unsentimental" approach to the material in comparison with Steven Spielberg's brand of film making. That is true. The characters in this film aren't blank spaces but they aren't given any grand speeches to recite. We don't see much crying, or what might be seen as an "Oscar" moment for an actor. Yet praising "Dunkirk" by dismissing Spielberg's direction as too sentimental seems like a cheap shot. The same people who almost 20 years ago were lauding "Saving Private Ryan" as among the best WWII movies of all time are now going out of their way to use Nolan's film to trample on that earlier triumph. No need; there's room for both.

Besides, Nolan doesn't completely leave out emotion either. Kenneth Branagh's pier-master Commander Bolton frequently speaks softly of "home." And a shell-shocked soldier played by Cillian Murphy is so afraid of dying that he causes a difficult situation for the people who rescue him from the ocean. These may not seem like "sentimental" moments, but they are moments that wouldn't be out of place in a Spielberg film.

So in assessing this "unsentimental" WWII drama, I can say that it is superbly staged and well-acted. Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography is impressive, Lee Smith's editing visceral and Hans Zimmer's score powerful but not intrusive. While I do like Steven Spielberg's heart-tugging narratives, I think Christopher Nolan has made another terrific addition to the list of great war films.