Cinematic Releases: Dunkirk (2017) - Reviewed

Director Christopher Nolan is undoubtedly considered one of today’s auteur directors.  His vision is one that is both distinct and uncompromising, making blockbuster films that are cerebral and challenging yet also engaging and entertaining. He is a filmmaker of two sensibilities that go mostly hand in hand with each other, one that believes in challenging an audience and the other that believes in entertaining an audience without treating them like children. Nolan’s brand of complex and engaging blockbusters has made him a household name but has left me feeling cold at times. I want to believe in this guy in the way that people write about him but there is something that feels slightly off about his movies. Maybe some day I’ll get it, I thought.

Well, that day is here and Dunkirk is that film. It not only melds these two sensibilities in a way that feels fresh and familiar but reveals there is a lot more to Nolan’s film making than what he has shown before.

Dunkirk is set in May 1940, at the start of World War 2. It follows a group of Allied soldiers from Belgium as the British Empire and France are surrounded and being taken out by the rapidly advancing German army. These men are trapped between enemy lines in an intensely dangerous situation that could be the start of the end of the world, as we know it. The film follows the men escaping Dunkirk in a story that intersects across land, air, and water.

Starting with a roaring intensity that never lets up, Dunkirk is an epic World War 2 spectacle that never loses touch with it’s core humanity. It is a film that is both intimate and epic, filled with performances that reinforce the humanity of the story. Nolan has done a fine job of filling his casting both with big name actors like Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, and Kenneth Branagh and actors who are just starting out like Fionn Whitehead and former One Direction member Harry Styles. Yes, Harry Styles is in this movie and he is wonderful in it. All of the actors in this film do a fine job of making the war feel real and intense. There is the sense of existential panic that permeates throughout the movie and it shows not just in the actor’s performances but also in the camera work, sound design, and score of the film.

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Dunkirk's core strength is aided by its visuals and sound. Reuniting Christopher Nolan with his Interstellar cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, Dunkirk features some of the most incredible and gorgeous cinematography I have seen this year. Shot on 70mm IMAX cameras, Dunkirk is breathtaking to look at. Every color is vivid, every background is huge, and the scale is impressive. Whether it is on land, air, or sea, the film is a stunning achievement and will most likely be a shoe in for the Best Cinematography Oscar next year. While Hoytema’s visuals do the heavy lifting, frequent Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer’s pulse pounding score ratchets up the tension in the film and the moments of triumph. It is definitely one of the best scores of this year and it works well with the film as a whole. The film’s soundscape is a constant force of piercing noises, we hear and feel every explosion and bullet fly by, throwing the characters and the viewer into a brutal and loud cinematic warzone that carries throughout the film.

These elements combined together make for a film that shows a crew that is at the height of their powers. You can tell that Christopher Nolan has grown as a filmmaker and this might just be his masterpiece.  Is it perfect? No. I could definitely see someone being annoyed that the film does not spend as much time as it could filling out its characters or that its structure can be confusing at points. It instead focuses on the situation around them. We never fully know who these men are but that’s because they are designed to service the plot and its themes. Another flaw is that while the sound design in the film is fantastic, it gets so loud at points that viewers can miss crucial moments of dialogue that help the film land it’s themes across.

Despite these flaws, I still think Dunkirk is a great film. This is one that embraces the existential and human parts of war. We don’t hear or physically see a Nazi ever. They are a looming presence throughout the film but we never see them because that is not what this is about. This is a story about survival and the best that humanity can be even in the darkest of times. This is a film about the bravery and the struggle of the men at Dunkirk.  This isn’t a film about an epic battle; this is a film about survival. And sometimes, that’s all it has to be. 

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Liam S. O'Connor