Movie Review: Dunkirk
By Steven Slater
August 1, 2017
Christopher Nolan frustrates me to no end. Dunkirk is simply his latest film that has many glimmers of a masterpiece, only to fall short in a key category. It is frustrating because in some ways I feel he is one of the best filmmakers alive, and he commands huge budgets for a type of movie you never see anymore. But then he gets trapped in his own shortcomings in a way that holds his movies back. This may simply be a personal opinion that history will judge untrue, given that his films command insane ratings on IMDb, but I will hold off on discussing this long-running transgression I carry against Nolan until the end of this review. First, the film.
Dunkirk tells the story of one of those miracle moments during World War II, where the chances for catastrophe were high, and any outcome other than the one that occurred could have spelled doom for the resistance to Nazi Germany. Hundreds of thousands of troops, most from Britain, were cornered by the Germans onto a small stretch of beach on the narrow English Channel. Nolan’s film is very focused on the evacuation itself, beginning as the Allies are already hunkered down in Dunkirk, and ending as one of the men arrives home. The plot concerns three arcs; the men on the beach who have to wait a week for salvation, the private boats drafted into service from the English coast, and the pilots flying daring missions across the channel to give what fight they can to Hitler’s Luftwaffe.
Nolan attempts to combine the tension from each by intercutting them as though they occur simultaneously. This can have odd consequences, such as one storyline switching between day and night while another maintains a continuous arc in daylight, as well as showing us events multiple times. Perhaps Nolan became addicted to this technique after the great success it achieved way back with Memento, and in Dunkirk I can understand the logic from a narrative standpoint (otherwise the aerials would only occur during the last few minutes of the film!), but it seems to confuse the story more than aid the impression. Regardless, it definitely allows Tom Hardy and his incredible flying stunts to be showcased to great affect. My favorite shot of the film is the Spitfire plane gliding without any more fuel, silently over the sunset lit cityscape of Dunkirk. It is an exact emotional analogue to that shot in The Dark Knight where the Joker hangs out of the cop car. In a film with Hans Zimmer scoring and Nolan’s tendency for mixing loud, the silent moments tend to speak with the most volume.
Some of the scenes are truly harrowing, in a way only Nolan can construe with real ships, water, actors, and minimal CGI. His method of filmmaking achieves a massive sense of scale, and when the U-boats and aerial bombardments sink the English destroyers, the IMAX scenes strike right to the bone of fear. Almost the entire film was photographed in IMAX 70mm, a bravura achievement unlikely to ever be topped. Hoyte Van Hoytema and Nolan do things with a 50-pound camera you never thought possible, using it as nimbly as a GoPro. The fact that Nolan prefers timing on film as opposed to digitally also lends the film an older feeling; some of the 70mm footage not in IMAX (about 25 percent was shot in 5-perf 70mm, like Lawrence of Arabia or The Hateful Eight) looks straight out of the 1960s, fitting the type of film if not the more modern filmmaking.