Cinema: Christopher Nolan Rises Again for a Slam Dunk(irk)

It’s not surprising to see Christopher Nolan’s newest feature, "Dunkirk," perform so successfully both financially and critically following its recent release. The fact of the matter is, Nolan doesn’t really miss. From groundbreaking thrillers like "The Prestige" and "Inception" to blockbuster smashes like "The Dark Knight Trilogy," when Nolan commits, we all win. So when it was announced that his next project would be a World War II epic, I was all in. "Dunkirk" is a visually stunning, action packed experience that progresses Nolan’s elite status, but not in the way you are used to.

The movie, shot on 70mm film, is about a collective of Allied soldiers from the U.K, France and Belgium attempting to flee a German overtaken France. The battle is portrayed from the lens of a few young soldiers on land trying to escape, a British father and son racing to aide the evacuation on a small yacht and a few Royal Air Force pilots fighting off German bombers in the air. While these characters aren’t real themselves, they are based on realistic portraits of those they depict. In a classic Nolan move, the duration of each lens is spread out; the soldiers over the course of a week, the father and son over a day and the pilots over an hour, all coming together at the end.

The most important thing to keep in mind before going to see "Dunkirk" is expectations. While Nolan’s infamous cinematic twists are one of his most prominent features as a filmmaker, that’s not relevant to this film. And while Nolan’s history of creating complex characters like Guy Pearce’s Leonard (Memento) and Heath Ledger’s Joker (The Dark Knight) are iconic, that’s also not relevant to this work. "Dunkirk" is an authentic representation of the intense and pressure-endured effort to evade German military forces at the start of World War II. Scared soldiers trying to escape, brave local citizens redefining what it means to be a good Samaritan and fearless pilots fighting to keep as many soldiers alive as they can. That’s the story. If you expect anything more, it’s likely you will be disappointed. With that said, understanding what Nolan was attempting to achieve with his interpretation of "Dunkirk," the film is exemplary.

Nolan impressively manages to evoke genuine emotion from the audience by capturing both the big picture of the battle, as well as the intimate moments of war. In terms of the big picture, the stakes and scale of the battle are colossal. The British government’s objective was to successfully evacuate 30,000 British soldiers. Yet there were over 300,000 men on the beaches from not only the U.K, but France and Belgium as well, all trying to escape their somewhat defenseless enclosure. Shots of crowded soldiers vying for spots on ships and thousands of people scrambling on the beach, praying to be just a little bit out of reach of incoming explosions, characterize the hostile atmosphere. In the midst of the chaos, there are moments that illustrate the fear and realness of the situation felt by individuals. A shell-shocked soldier, miraculously alive from a U-boat torpedo. A local father navigating towards the treacherous waters simply trying to do his part.  A Frenchman desperately trying to survive as he quietly attempts to blend in with the fleeing Brits. There are a lot of different angles portrayed in terms of the human aspect of war that engage the audience from start to finish.

Strong acting from both newcomers and experienced actors legitimize the film. Fionn Whitehead (Tommy), Damien Bonnard (French Soldier) and One Direction’s Harry Styles (Alex) dynamically play a trio of soldiers that provide a sense of suspense in terms of character fatality. While the outcome of the war is clearly documented, the unknown outcome of these fictionalized characters push you a little further on the edge of your seat. Tom Hardy (Farrier), Mark Rylance (Mr. Dawson) and Kenneth Branagh (Commander Bolton) do their parts justice, while Cillian Murphy’s (Soldier) minimal screen time displays his prowess as an actor.

There is a feeling of wanting a little more following the end of the film. Considering the historical context and alternating timeline, the film’s purposely predictable conclusion doesn’t give you anything unexpected. As stated earlier, Nolan’s intentions for the story were not fueled by inventiveness, but rather authenticity. Yet it is because of those intentions that I left the theater appreciating what Nolan accomplished, but also feeling as though I didn’t get enough out of the film. The fact that "Dunkirk" is not a character-driven story benefits the film as a historical interpretation but falls a little short in terms of story. 

As the Oscars approach, "Dunkirk" serves a strong stepping-stone into the awards season. With the first half of the cinematic year charged by superhero movies, Nolan’s World War II epic is both refreshing and remarkable. "Dunkirk" joins the ranks of credible and well-told war films in the likes of "Saving Private Ryan" and "Hacksaw Ridge," while further cementing Christopher Nolan as one of the finest filmmakers of his generation.