“Dunkirk” Movie Review


     It’s always intriguing to examine the path various filmmakers have taken in achieving Oscar gold.  One of the more interesting avenues has been that of the blockbuster filmmaker who already brings to the table a critically and financially successful filmography, but has been consistently overlooked by the Academy even though audiences have shown adoration for years.  Two directors that immediately come to mind are James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, who have regularly churned out both classic and crowd pleasing films, but could never seem to win the ultimate prize voted upon by their own peers.  Think about it.  Cameron boasted films like “The Terminator”, “Aliens”, “The Abyss”, “Terminator 2”, and “True Lies” to open his uber successful filmmaking career.  And like Cameron, Spielberg’s early films read like an impromptu AFI Top 100 list with classics such as “Jaws”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, and “E.T.”.  But none of these films were able to win an Oscar in any of the top categories, settling for below the line technical awards instead.

     So what did Cameron and Spielberg eventually do in order to get the praise they had both deserved for years?  In a word, they tackled the one subject Oscar voters always seem to love:   History.  In 1993, Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” won 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.  In 1997, Cameron’s “Titanic” took home 11 Academy Awards, also including Best Picture and Best Director, cementing both filmmakers as masters of their craft, having achieved the pinnacle of their respective profession while continuing to expose audiences to their style of awe inspiring storytelling.  Cameron and Spielberg are still doing that today, but who is the up and coming filmmaker following a similar trajectory to stardom?

     Writer/director Christopher Nolan might be a good bet.  His early career includes smaller films like “Memento” and “Insomnia”, but he quickly shifted gears when he was handed the keys to resurrecting Warner Bros. “Batman” franchise, where he gave us “Batman Begins”, “The Dark Knight”, and “The Dark Knight Rises”.  In addition, he fit “Inception” in between two of the “Batman” films, and most recently gave us the multidimensional space thriller “Interstellar”.  All of which were received well by audiences and critics, but failed to win an Oscar in a major category save for Heath Ledger’s posthumous award for Best Supporting Actor in 2008’s “The Dark Knight”.  But like Cameron and Spielberg, Nolan has shifted gears and taken on a historical project centered around one of the fiercest battles of World War 2 with “Dunkirk”.  Could “Dunkirk” be the film that finally sees Nolan raising one of those coveted statuettes next February? Stay tuned. 

     “Dunkirk” takes the audience well beyond the standard movie experience in which we expect a story told in a conventional format, developing characters along the way who we by film’s end may somehow resonate with.  Instead Nolan throws convention out the window and forces the audience to strap in on the kind of ride along all of us would in reality likely pass on.  Think of “Dunkirk” as if you are a film crew for the long running television show “Cops”, following people of whom you may not know their name as they run into the frame to help the wounded or save someone from drowning.  “Cops” was a half hour show and was more concerned with the action and heroism going on in front of the camera than the heroes themselves.  “Dunkirk” is formatted much the same way, letting the visual aspect of the film give us the information we need as an audience, rather than having a singular hero talk us through it in every scene.  In other words, Nolan doesn't create a fictional character like the one Mark Wahlberg played in “Patriots Day” so the audience can latch on to a movie star from the beginning to the end of a story based on real events.  “Dunkirk” is a team effort, capturing the realism of the event in which there were thousands of heroes, both military and civilian.

     Led by a cast that includes Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, and Kenneth Branagh, Nolan chooses a non linear approach to depicting the events that took place on the beach at Dunkirk, France in 1940.  Following a battle that would see German forces surrounding some 400,000 British, Belgian, and French troops who had no way of escaping.  The British devised a plan to commission civilian boats to travel across the English Channel and pick up survivors, since the use of larger military vessels was impossible due to the shallow Dunkirk waters.  Nolan gives the experience from the point of view of several people involved.  Branagh’s Commander Bolton is on the ground, trying to keep the moral of the men as high as possible while awaiting the military’s plan for extraction.  Rylance’s Mr. Dawson is the owner of one of the hundreds of small boats and yachts on their way to Dunkirk in the hopes of saving as many troops as possible.  Hardy’s Farrier is a Spitfire pilot patrolling the English Channel and looking for German bombers seeking to destroy the ships carrying men to their safety.  And there are young soldiers as well, who lead us to the Dunkirk beach in the film’s first scene after evading German sniper fire in a nearby town.  All of this is presented with the kind of realism that will shock you, exhilarate you, and leave you shaking long after you exit the theater.

     Long a big proponent of IMAX cameras, Nolan shot “Dunkirk” almost exclusively in the format, making the film a must see in the premium theater for those who want the ultimate experience.  The visuals by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema fill every frame with such depth, that you sometimes feel as though you are on the beach right there with the thousands of soldiers awaiting and hoping for a way home.  Hans Zimmer’s score adds to the imagery, creating a consistent white knuckle tension that doesn't let up for the film’s entire running time.  It’s as if you can hear the clock ticking in the music, which is frequently interrupted by the startling sounds of gun fire, explosions, or German bombers diving towards the helpless souls on the beach.  This isn’t the kind of war fare exhibited in Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”, where men are charging the well fortified German army in the hopes of overtaking them.  Instead, we see thousands of war weary and wounded men who are surrounded from every conceivable angle.  Boxed into a small area, where they can actually see home, but have no way to get there and little defense against the German Air Force’s relentless attacks.

     For the record, I think neither “Schindler’s List” or “Titanic” are Spielberg’s and Cameron’s best films respectively, nor am I about to say “Dunkirk” is Nolan’s best film.  All three films are masterpieces, but each of these masterful filmmakers have been able to create this quality of work several times before and will no doubt continue to do so.  What is not in question is the fact “Dunkirk” is the best film of 2017 so far, and may not be surpassed when the year is done.  And while some may question Nolan’s decision to switch between time lines and various character’s vantage points, the film serves as a tour de force in brilliant filmmaking, both from a technical standpoint, as well as the methods used for its storytelling.  When one thinks of war films, certainly “Full Metal Jacket”, “Platoon”, “Apocalypse Now”, and the aforementioned “Saving Private Ryan” will come to mind, and I would argue that in a few years “Dunkirk” will as well.  It’s a film made by Hollywood that doesn't feel like Hollywood.  Instead of the emotions coming from the heroics of one person, you will find yourself engulfed in the gravity of the entire situation and what it took to pull off the rescue of the century.  “Dunkirk” may not be the film Nolan was born to make, but it is the one he needed to make in order to finally get the credit he already deserved.  GRADE: A