Dunkirk ★★★★★

In May and early June of 1940, over three hundred thousand British, French, and Belgian troops were trapped on a beach in Dunkirk, France. Above them, German fighter planes flew, using the Allied forces for target practice. Behind them, Hitler’s army was advancing.

Surrounded, outmanned and starving all seemed lost. With the fate of the world in the balance, and the Royal Navy taking extreme losses, Winston Churchill called on Britain and all of her children to take to the sea, and head to Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan’s latest film tells the story of this miraculous 300,000 plus man evacuation, one of the largest civilian rescue missions in the history of man.

Dunkirk opens with German fliers dropping from the sky, reminding the soldiers on the ground, and the audience in their seats that we are surrounded. Abruptly, the sound of battle cries and an immediate sense fear begins pulsing through the screen. We follow a young infantry man (played brilliantly by Fionn Whitehead) as he bolts for his life, watching one by one as his comrades are picked off beside him. Shaking and petrified, he scurries for cover behind a small fence and attempts to load his rifle. As bullets whiz past his skull, he (and we) are bombarded repeatedly with the prospect of death. At this realization, his rifle hits the ground, and this man no older than I am now turns and runs for his life. Much like the opening of Saving Private Ryan, the opening of Dunkirk transports the audience through the use of sight and sound, placing us in the heart of a battle for survival. The editing and camera movement force us to hold our breath and hope for the best. This scene sets us up for what is to come… an unrelenting, and terrifying experience, the likes of which I have never seen before.

Similarly to a portion of Nolan’s other work (Memento and Inception), Dunkirk is structured in a unique fashion. He weaves this tale between three alternating perspectives, land (Army, Fionn Whitehead), sea (civilian distress boats, Mark Rylance and later Cillian Murphy), and air (British Air Force, Tom Hardy). Through examining these events with an abstract narrative, Nolan allows himself the freedom to build tension at his leisure, in whatever way he pleases. This structure provides an avenue for the film to intercut between dogfights, sinking vessels, and attempted sea rescues. In doing so, and through the use of a masterful score from Hans Zimmer and perfect editing by Lee Smith, Dunkirk becomes a truly horrifying experience. Enemy soldiers are not seen, but they are heard and felt, the damage of their presence inflicted constantly, the knowledge that they are closing in, a psychological hangman’s noose. Whenever hope feels near, it is quickly and efficiently struck down by a torpedo, or enemy fighter pilot. Deliverance is a pipe dream for the men on the ground, in the air, and certainly an after thought for the ones drowning at sea. The situation is too dire. Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema usher the audience into a claustrophobic world void of hope. Bombs fall from the sky repeatedly, rescue boats are blown from the water, men are gunned down like fish in a barrel. We feel their fear, taste their sweat, swallow the oil as it leaks from the sinking boats’ hull and into our mouths. The heat of raging flames presses against our faces and the water drowning our lungs cause the audience to gasp for air. When enemy planes are shot down, our fists tighten with righteous joy, and when Allied planes crash, our eyes water with tears. The odds are not in the Allies’ favor. Survival is inconceivable given the circumstances. Yet these men fight on, scratching and clawing at every opportunity in search of another living minute. The visceral nature of this experience is why when rescue does arrive it is a true emotional catharsis. With the audience expecting and witnessing death, Dunkirk presents history in a way that makes us question our knowledge of real-life events. We have an acute understanding that the rescue succeeds, but in light of what we are witnessing it seems impossible. This may be Dunkirk's greatest achievement.

Dunkirk is not a war film. It is a survival film… a testimonial to the lengths in which the human spirit will go to persevere. In the face of utter defeat, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance, men, women, and children, serviced and otherwise, risked their lives to save individuals they had never met. When country called… when the world called… they answered.

Dunkirk is constructed, shot, and edited to perfection. This is Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece and it is one of the most harrowing and rejuvenating cinematic experiences I have ever endured.

George McCann liked this review