Full disclosure: Christopher Nolan is my favorite director. Just have to put that out there, but that “love” doesn’t generally mean easy street on any of my reviews. Often, it means the exact opposite. When you revere someone as much as I do Nolan, there’s a level of expectation that must be met in order to avoid disappointment. Upon watching The Dark Knight, I realized I would never enjoy a movie more in my life. Upon watching Interstellar, I liked it, but I knew it wasn’t one of his better films. Upon watching Dunkirk, I was rendered speechless.
After followers, memory challenges, magic, dirty cops, Caped Crusaders, tricksters, dream weavers, teachers, and even space and time wranglers, Nolan chose to go to World War II and depict one of the more significant, but often overlooked events during that time in history. It was a bold choice, because of the sheer number of WWII films in existence, not to mention the oversaturate nature of the war genre as a whole.
Still, this felt like the time for him to do something like Dunkirk, rather than take us through another fictional landscape of fantasy, wonder, and nightmare. Here, Christopher Nolan dropped the fantasy, pushed the wonder off a boat, and gave us a truly terrifying 108 minute hellscape.
From the immediacy and dread emanating from the movie’s first scene, Dunkirk has no time for your bullshit. There’s work to be done here. As usual, we don’t see Nolan’s name until the closing credits, and we get directly into the action with a simple “DUNKIRK” across a black screen. Within two minutes, gunfire is ringing out and people are in grave danger.
While we get to know the various characters in the film, we do so in Nolan’s way, rather than our own. We don’t meet the families, we don’t see flashbacks of dinners, fireplaces, or Christmas morning. What makes Dunkirk so unique is its unwillingness to spoon feed the audience any of its story, its direction, or any of its personalities to us. As Tom Hardy’s Farrier darts across the sky, attempting to keep dive bombers off his countrymen and allies, we’re expected to know he has loved ones, enjoys football, and reads Whitman in his spare time.
I have no idea if any of this is true, but it’s as accurate as anything else, because the only thing that matters about Farrier is what he’s doing in that aircraft and how his heroism might save lives. We don’t need to know any more about him. We don’t have time to learn about him. He doesn’t have time to tell us. This is the way Dunkirk is laid out, with three separate stories that all relate and converge upon one another, but in the most natural and seamless of ways.
The illustrations of the theater of war are exquisite, brutal, and impossible to avoid. To add a bit more intrigue and to keep the audience off kilter, Christopher Nolan twists the concept of time. As you watch Dunkirk, expect to be engrossed in all sides of the conflict and the rescue mission, but also anticipate a moment where your mind will bend for a few seconds. As straightforward as the film is, its director still finds a way to do things a bit differently relative to structure.
The aerial sequences are particularly breathtaking as an experience, but nothing in this movie isn’t grittily beautiful. If you have the opportunity, Dunkirk begs to be seen in 70mm IMAX, where Hans Zimmer’s constant, never-ending, pulse-pounding score can rattle the bones and the visuals can infect the senses. There is virtually no silence to be found between title and closing credits. Zimmer’s music permeates nearly every second, and it’s doubly effective in a movie where dialogue is used sparingly.
What’s both amazing and disappointing about this movie is how many people will walk into it with precisely no knowledge of the actual event. That’s where we are in our command and interest level in history today. It’s why entertainment based on truth is no longer quite the draw it once was. Nolan doesn’t feel the need to bother us with social commentary or anything other than what took place at Dunkirk.
He tells it his way, with the likes of Hardy, Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Cillian Murphy, and Mark Rylance. Rylance’s performance is staggering, and though no one in Dunkirk gets a plethora of screen time, several shine. Whitehead, Rylance, and Hardy are all sublime, and Lowden excels in his character’s biggest moment. As a result of the tactics Nolan used, coupled with his unwillingness to include almost any fluff, his film is pristine and pure.
And it’s an absolute stunner.
We’ve gotten some great movies in 2017; in fact right now there are at least six films available in most theaters that have incredibly high marks from both critics and customers alike. Baby Driver, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Wonder Woman, The Big Sick, War of the Planet of the Apes, and even Guardians of the Galaxy 2 are all available today in some parts of the country. You could spend an entire day at the movies and not see anything bad.
Ladies and gentlemen, with all due respect to those fantastic efforts, not one of them is as good as Dunkirk. Not one of them is as professional as Dunkirk. Not one of them is as affecting and harrowing as Dunkirk. And not one of them leaves your jaw on the floor to the Dunkirk degree when the screen finally goes black. This is as close to a perfect war movie as you can get. Last year’s Hacksaw Ridge was phenomenal and worthy of all the praise it received, but even that ain’t Dunkirk.
This isn’t a film with one-liners, and it’s not a film with many long discussions. What’s said is purposeful, advances the story, and gets us closer to the climax. There IS a climax, although you might think you’ve seen that moment three times before you actually get there. 108 minutes for a Christopher Nolan film, or for any major summer release, is relatively short, but not in this case.
Had Dunkirk been a half hour longer, it might have ruined the movie’s impact. 15 minutes might have dropped it from epic to merely very good. But, what we get instead is 108 minutes of sheer anxiety, flawless execution, and unadulterated, unfiltered drama. It hits you directly in the face with 17 impossible to block haymakers, and then it’s over. It’s not just a movie. It’s an event.
Dunkirk is exhilarating, depressing, exhausting, inspiring, and reminds us what human beings are capable of when they think in the macro, and refrain from letting the micro control their lives. This is a powerful, unforgettable motion picture experience. Though the movie does show a few disagreements between the characters, they’re largely secondary. Generally everyone is far too invested in working towards the same goal.
With the highest recommendation I can offer, I implore you to see this movie, to take your children, and to teach them bias-free history. When you leave the theater, hand them a book and let them read about what real struggle, real danger, and real heroism look like.
This will be a film that will be shown in high school and college social studies and history classes for decades to come. It’s that good.
Dunkirk doesn’t come packaged with much blood, it’s absent almost entirely of foul language, and there’s maybe one chuckle to be found (and you have to search to locate it). This movie has one purpose, one goal, and one mission.
Nolan asks you to watch an incredibly significant historical story told in a unique, artistic fashion, but the contained message is overwhelmingly positive. Despite the direst of circumstances, if we put aside our selfish motives and our differences, and simply work together…
WE. CAN. DO. ANYTHING.
REVIEW SCORE: A+
I’m @JMartOutkick. If you need me, I’ll be watching this movie again in IMAX. Catch you in 108 minutes.