While the trailer makes Dunkirk seem like a big, old-school, epic war movie, the film itself tells a different story. It’s actually a fairly small, intimate war movie focused on mood and theme rather than plot and character. The atrocity of war is covered with the land, sea, and air fight at Dunkirk, France, where allied retreat from the Nazis was the only option.
Interestingly, and to great effect, the time shifts dramatically from land (a week before the climax), sea (a day before), and air (an hour before) as our nameless heroes due their duty and/or try to survive and escape what is obviously a losing battle. Spoilers, if you will, of one story are in the background of other stories as the perspective shifts. This elaborate puzzle connecting nicely and thematically at the height of the film.
It’s in the final moments, though, where Dunkirk truly wins. Juxtaposing the brutality and humanity of what we have just seen with the spin of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s public account, the film, in just a couple minutes, says more about the separation between those who wage wars and those who fight them than most movies on the subject.
Visually, the film is gorgeous, but that’s to be expected from director Christopher Nolan. The performances are strong and subtle across the board from the well-known faces (Kenneth Branaugh, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy) to the stunt casting (Harry Styles) to the unknowns (Fionn Whitehead, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden). There are no huge plot points or character arcs but that’s essentially the point. And given the barely an hour and a half run time, the movie avoids the bloat that sometimes sinks the epics.
The movie is another worthy entrant in Nolan’s already fairly stellar oeuvre, a fast-paced, loud, beautiful, focused film that is both sweeping in a scale, and uncomfortably intimate.
My Grade – A-