Warner Bros. 1 hour 46 minutes PG 13 Reviewed July 20, 2017
Director Christopher Nolan’s first action film based on a real life event is massive and impressive. During World War II, 400,000 British and Allied soldiers were pushed by the Nazis to the corner of France at Dunkirk; trapped on the beach with no way out. What was a defeat in May, 1940, actually turned into a moral victory. Nolan feels there was a gap in telling this story and he wanted to put his stamp on it. War movie buffs are going to love this full-on spectacle.
The Allied Forces were being attacked by land, sea, and air as they tried to evacuate. Nolan bounces back and forth, up and down and under water showing us the same scenarios from all three angles. You see the soldiers mercilessly bombed like sitting ducks on the beach and in ships, having to jump into the blazing sea to try and survive. Kenneth Branagh as stoic Commander Bolton and James D’Arcy as Colonel Winnant are trying to strategize an evacuation under impossible circumstances.
Tension mounts at a fever pitch most of the way, but we found it very hard to follow skipping from the beach, to the ships to the pilots trying to shoot down enemy planes. You get a sense of the urgency from the ticking like a time bomb, or a beating heart as under the score by Hans Zimmer behind the chaos during attacks. Still, the intercutting from land to sea to air is frustrating and lags at times. The film also stalls in the middle, eventually pulling you back into the action.
However, there is a moral to the story. Never give up, even when all looks lost. Winston Churchill asked private boat owners in England to use their crafts to bring back the troops. Thousands answered the call. And that’s how more than 300,000 were rescued.
Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson is a standout in this film and deserves special recognition. He plays one of the saviors who sails with his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his son’s friend, George (Barry Keoghan) to rescue as many soldiers as they could. There's drama on board when they rescue a shivering soldier (Cilican Murphy) who doesn't want to help.
To prep for this role, Rylance went to the Imperial War Museum in London and listened to interviews with Dunkirk survivors and rescuers. The Academy Award winner was taken with the details and describes the mission as “a communal effort of selflessness” that saved 3/4 of the troops who were on the beach.
Young women will clamor to see Harry Styles of One Direction fame, as Alex, one of the young soldiers fighting for survival with other lads, Tommy, played by Fionn Whitehead, and Aneurin Barnard as Gibson. Director Nolan wanted unknown actors and auditioned thousands of young men but says this combination was the one that worked. Styles had mostly only acted in music videos. But here, he shows he can more than pull it off as part of an ensemble. Rylance complemented Styles saying Harry took it seriously, but was delightful and witty on set. Apparently his new hair cut got a lot of attention, too, from his fans on the internet.
The young soldiers had some military training and learned to swim in the sea while in uniform carrying equipment. They say it didn’t require much acting when you’re in the cold ocean and surrounded by planes and ships. And they agree that it wasn't hard to capture the mood knowing they were on the very beach where it actually happened. Nolan just told them to “use it.”
The Director employed stunts relentlessly but tried to stay away from CGI as much as he could. He said he wanted to put as much in the camera as possible. He also wanted the audience to feel as if they were right there, in the water or flying the plane along with Jack Lowden who plays Colin and Tom Hardy as Farrier, both RAF pilots. Some of their aerial acrobatics might leave you air sick, but there is a payoff.
Hardy is always good, but, unlike villain Bane behind the mask in The Dark Knight, Hardy is behind a pilot’s mask for most of his time on camera in this film.This time, however, he’s a true hero.
Warning: There is a lot of drowning and near drowning to keep you uncomfortable in your seat. There’s tension from the first frame and it does not let up. Nolan wants you to know how bad it was for these men and how close they came to death. It is nothing short of a miracle that so many survived. And it’s good to see this dramatized depiction of what they went through.
Nolan has put together an epic film covering Dunkirk like a blanket from every angle and it’s always coming right at you. It’s a story about the heroes in uniform and the heroes who came in their small boats. Once again the battlefield defeat at Dunkirk has turned into victory, but this time you can see it bigger than life in 70mm IMAX.