Dunkirk is one of the most original history films in mainstream cinema. Unlike most traditional war films the focus is not on the action of the war, or the ideology of the battle, but the reality of its consequences. It shows us the momentary stress of being on the battlefield, and brings us face-to-face with the grating futility of these soldiers’ experience.
I saw it in 70mm film, but there’s five different viewing ratios for Dunkirk (which is no surprise from Christopher Nolan). In retrospect, I’d recommend seeing it in IMAX. The film’s beautifully executed cinematography helps offset the chilling circumstance, and I imagine the 70mm IMAX only intensifies the experience. It’s also perhaps the best piece I’ve seen out of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Spectre, Interstellar, Her), who does routinely excellent work. Expect consideration around awards season. The aerial dog fights alone (with REAL World War II spitfires) should guarantee a nomination.
The pace of Dunkirk drives, and Nolan uses time as a narrative device to bring the piece together, but some viewers may get lost in the variety of storylines. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) makes a decent protagonist, but he feels more like a focal point than a hero. This is not a criticism of his performance – which is quite strong for a relatively unknown actor – but symptomatic of the goals of storytelling. We see the front line in a variety of rankings, rather than the leaders of the fight. We see individual acts of heroism from ordinary people that make the whole war effort accurately extraordinary.
The cast is strong across the board, which help the multiple storylines work. Tom Hardy is suitably sharp driving his fighter plane (just watch his film Locke for evidence that he’s an extremely entertaining driver). Mark Rylance is magnetic as Mr. Dawson, and Cillian Murphy is tremendously memorable as pilot suffering from PTSD, despite limited screen time. Yes, even the oh-so-easy-to-pick-on Harry Styles makes a convincing soldier.
Dunkirk feels like a new territory for Christopher Nolan. It’s his artistry in the action genre that makes this film so watchable, but he’s sidestepped many of the film tropes that make war films stale. As an English-American director focusing on British (and briefly French) soldiers rather than American, he’s also proving that Hollywood can move their blockbusters beyond a US narrative.
All in all, this is some of Nolan’s finest work, and his disinterest in telling a simple narrative leads to a beautiful film fuelled by its ensemble. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s a definite must-see film this summer.