Christopher Nolan has one of the best track records in Hollywood, considering all the times he’s knocked it out of the park. This movie is less like Inception though and more like a standard World War II flick. For being Nolan’s first true story, does it succeed?
It’s the middle of World War II and a group of almost 400,000 men are stuck on a beach, surrounded by the German army. This movie tells the tale of their struggle to survive, in an unconventional timing structure that only Nolan would attempt. On the ground, we cover a week, following soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he tries to find his way onto one of the few boats leaving the island. They’re led by Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), who tries to think of creative ways to save his soldiers. Our second story is from the sea, as we follow a civilian (Mark Rylance) as he is called upon to take his small vessel to Dunkirk to rescue as many men as he can, though his story only lasts one day. Lastly, we go to the sky, where a pilot (Tom Hardy) tries to save as many men as he can while his gas tank plummets and he risks not making it back. The sky storyline only covers one hour.
The tricky thing, is these stories interweave but they cross over at different times. We may see the pilot cross over into the sea storyline before the pilot’s scenes actually get that far. There are times when characters appear at the same instance in different places because of this time dynamic.
Other standouts include Harry Styles, Cillian Murphy, and Tom Glynn-Carney, amidst others.
Christopher Nolan is very experienced in gigantic cinematic experiences, so it’s no surprise that this movie from start to finish is polished and technically perfect. The shots are wide and open when they need to be, but also claustrophobic when they need to be. The sound design is exceptional, with shots and bombs making you jolt in your seat (though this sometimes makes the dialogue hard to hear).
There are plenty of edge-of-your-seat action moments and this movie is well worth the ticket price to see it on the big screen.
Some standout performers… Mark Rylance is great as always. I can say the same for the newcomer Fionn Whitehead, who plays Tommy (though I don’t think his name is ever said in the movie). There are only a few lines of dialogue for Tommy but his actions speak louder than words as we learn about his character. Some actors flourished in this no-nonsense no-dialogue method, though some could’ve used a few lines, to at least learn their names.
What doesn’t work?
Like I said above, some characters were given zero to say and it made it hard to understand them (or care for them). A lot of characters also look alike, especially in the same uniforms, so you have to pay close attention to which character is which.
My other big problem was the gimmick here of time. Nolan has delivered gimmicks before, most notably Inception and Memento. They change the way you watch the movie but you appreciate them. I don’t know if this gimmick for Dunkirk paid off, I think I would’ve preferred a linear timeline. The movie could’ve relied on its amazing action sequences to keep people engaged, we didn’t need the constant jolt of time. I found myself trying to take mental notes of “When is this?” during the big climax instead of just enjoying it.
I also mentioned above that the sound design was pretty stellar but the mixing was a bit off, at least in my theater. The dialogue is so rare in this movie that I wanted to hear it when people actually spoke. I missed most of the dialogue, including almost everything a masked Tom Hardy said while shooting down other planes. I have a hard enough time understanding Hardy when he’s not wearing a mask.
Dunkirk is great, especially if you want a visceral and intense look at sheer survival. However it has a few hiccups which hold it back from being a 5 for me. The sound mixing felt off, the characters felt a little one-dimensional, and the gimmick of time felt like exactly that: an unneeded gimmick. Temper your expectations and you might just find that you thoroughly enjoy this one. If you’re interested, make sure to catch it in theaters.