Director/writer Christopher Nolan is best known for his flights into the lands of the fantastic. From the dream world of “Inception” to the deep space of “Interstellar” and the caped-crusader heroism of his “Batman” trilogy, the British filmmaker often explores vistas far removed from the existence of the everyday.
“Dunkirk,” his latest film, is different. Set in 1940 amid the exhausted English troops clinging to the French coast waiting for either evacuation or death while the Germans encircle them, “Dunkirk” — based on real events — is rooted in the reality of the fight-or-flight and fatigue of WWII.
When combined with Nolan’s celebration of spectacle, “Dunkirk” — with its dive-bombing planes, aerial dogfights and ships under bombardment — lives up to the director’s reputation as a master visual stylist. Yet, even though dialogue is minimal and what does exist is often overwhelmed by the chaos and thunder of conflict as well the actors’ accents, “Dunkirk” is also one of his most resolutely human films and, by clocking in at under two hours, it’s also one of his most concise.
The story is separated into three strands that weave together and overlap. Fionn Whitehead is Tommy, whom we meet on the deserted streets of Dunkirk, France, where advancing Germans are relentlessly pushing retreating British and French troops into the sea. After he and a small group of Allied soldiers come under heavy fire, Tommy lucks out and finds his way into the relatively safe hands of a large group of British soldiers waiting on the beach for rescue. Yet unless Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) can find a way to get them off that sand, they’re just sitting ducks waiting for slaughter.
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Meanwhile, civilians Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and another young man, George (Barry Keoghan), are secretly preparing their small yacht to be part of an armada of citizen sailors from the British side of the Channel who will provide transportation for the stranded soldiers. They are willing to do what the British government apparently can’t or won’t do in the face of what looks like humiliating defeat.
In the sky, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) are ace English pilots taking on the dreaded German Luftwaffe. They are trying to buy the soldiers on the ground more time, but Farrier may not have enough fuel to see it through. (Strikingly, Hardy spends the film with his face covered by a flight mask, reminiscent of the much more menacing mask he wore as a villain in Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises.”)
Each of these stories is electrified with a sense of suspense and there are moments — being trapped in a downed plane as the water rushes in, being under water while the flames of spent fuel and oil roar overhead on the surface — where the panic is palpable.
Notably, there are no visible Germans in “Dunkirk.” Their presence is felt only as imminent death from above. Also, unlike most English-speaking, major-studio films about WWII, this one has no Americans at all. This is a decidedly and proudly British story.
The emotions are heightened by the gorgeous cinematography from Hoyte Van Hoytema, the foreboding score from Hans Zimmer, and the heart-racing sound design. Surprisingly though, despite the constant feeling of danger, the film is free from gore or even much blood (it’s only rated PG-13). Still, it doesn’t feel antiseptic or sanitized.
While “Dunkirk” is not a film about individual performances, there are a couple of standouts, including newcomer Whitehead as the clever Tommy and Harry Styles (yes, that Harry Styles) as one of Tommy’s more overzealous compatriots.
For all of that though, Nolan doesn’t really let us get to know these guys, something that may be a flaw for many. Unlike other war films, there’s no introduction to their hopes and dreams or the friends, lovers and family left behind. You’re simply plunged into their nightmare where they are not always heroic (the French soldiers who are, in theory, their allies aren’t exactly treated as such). Still, while this isn’t “Band of Brothers,” you can’t help but root for them.
In the world of 2017, “Dunkirk” is Nolan’s salvo in another war, his battle to save the big-screen, theatrical experience from extinction. This is a movie that deserves to be seen on the largest screen possible and, no, whatever you have in your home doesn’t count unless you reside inside an IMAX theater.
“War . . . what is it good for?” singer Edwin Starr raged during the Vietnam War in 1970. “Dunkirk” is Nolan’s often stunning reply.
☆☆☆☆ 1/2 (out of five)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Tom Hardy, Harry Styles, Kenneth Branaugh
Rated: PG-13 (intense war experience, strong language)
Running time: 106 min.