Review by C.J. Bunce
Something about a film created contemporary to the World War II years automatically lends itself to a greater level of authenticity than the modern attempt at an epic war film. Dunkirk is one of those modern large-scale productions, falling in line behind the likes of 1998’s Saving Private Ryan and 2001’s Pearl Harbor. Dunkirk is better than both, and although it doesn’t have the gravitas of 1993’s Schindler’s List and is not as nail-biting as something like 1981’s Das Boot, Dunkirk still provides some good nuggets of emotion as we hone in on a dozen soldiers, sailors, and civilians attempting to get to the end of a week during the Battle of France–May 26 to June 4, 1940. Dunkirk doesn’t tell a story full of intrigue like 2008’s Valkyrie, but its reflection of the war seems all the more reality-based despite not using film methods like that of Steven Spielberg, who tends to film historical settings with filters that make audiences feel more like “we were there.” The most important lessons of history can be found in the study of World War II so any World War II film is a success if it can tell a story of brave leadership, brave soldiering, and accountability of the citizenry as Dunkirk does.
Dunkirk comes closest to Saving Private Ryan, presenting a believable wide-scope, giant battlefield, then bringing viewers into the brief encounters and interactions of a few. Compelling roles are shared evenly in the three stories by actors young and old–most importantly is newcomer Fionn Whitehead playing a soldier who barely makes it to the battlefield and then seems to have nothing but bad luck as he must make life-and-death choices at every step to try to get closer to home. From the older set, Mark Rylance (Wolf Hall, The BFG, Ready Player One) is a stoic Brit civilian who has his own reasons to try to bring some soldiers home. And Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road, The Dark Knight Rises) plays the key fighter pilot, whose fuel gauge is broken and his assistance from other squadrons is nil. The aerial dogfights aren’t the exciting stuff of war movies of the past, but the story doesn’t really call for that. The theme is in the numbers: Can any individual beat the odds with the German fighter aircraft returning for further attacks on the beach, on the escort and attack vessels, and against the three British airplanes? Who will make it home, and who will not?
Director Christopher Nolan engages a unique story device, telling three stories simultaneously. The first begins a week before the finale that follows the fate of 400,000 British ground forces (with a few French soldiers) waiting to be picked up on the beach in Dunkirk for transport back to England after the failure to secure France (or picked off by enemy strafing). The second story begins one day before the finale, as a man, his son, and a friend answer the call in England for civilian boats to head across the channel to Dunkirk to transport troops home. The third story begins one hour prior to the end, and follows three British pilots trying to stave off a German aerial assault on the beachhead. Despite the spliced intersections of three clocks, Nolan makes it work. Astonishingly the audience is reeled into the story even if we learn almost nothing about the backstory of any character in the film. The best takeaway? The relative value in war of one man in a single fighter plane vs. 400,000 ground troops.
Supporting actors are just as remarkable as the three leads: Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Valkyrie, Harry Potter series) balances difficult decisions and takes responsibility for every man as naval Commander Bolton (in a role similar to David Strathairn’s colonel in 1990’s Memphis Belle). James D’Arcy (Agent Carter, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Hitchcock) is equally compelling as a naval colonel antsy to get his men on boats. Tom Glynn-Carney (The Last Post), Jack Lowden (Wolf Hall, ’71), One Direction’s Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard (Thirteen), Barry Keoghan (Norfolk, ’71), and Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later, The Dark Knight, Red Eye) round out the cast.
What Dunkirk could have used was a dose of Peter Weir at the helm to provide a flicker more of excitement now and then to what plays as a consistent tone that keeps its pace–and the audience onboard–thanks to a solid musical score by Hans Zimmer (Pirates of the Caribbean, Sherlock Holmes, and Dark Knight series, Pearl Harbor, Twister). Zimmer provides an incessant pounding that mimics the waves–the waves echo a slowly turning tide that seems to refuse to change direction. One of the best successes of the film is its use of sound. A perfect contender for sound editing Oscar, the highs and lows integrated with the unusual time-out-of-joint tale provide good cues to coming action and provide some needed tension in the right places along the way.
Dunkirk is in theaters in limited release and expected to return more broadly again nationwide as the 2018 Academy Awards draw closer–Dunkirk is a serious contender for 2017’s best film. Dunkirk is also now available on DVD, Blu-ray, Digital HD, and 4K here at Amazon.