FILM REVIEW – DUNKIRK. With Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language. 105 minutes.
After a summer of reboots and retreads, writer-director Christopher Nolan has come to the rescue with a powerful, gripping movie about World War II focused on a dramatic retreat by the Allies that would turn into a source of inspiration. DUNKIRK covers several days in the spring of 1940 when some 400,000 troops were trapped by the Germans on the beaches of France, unable to evacuate quickly enough across the English Channel.
As more than one character says, they can see “home” from where they are, while remaining easy pickings for German planes and U-boats. England doesn’t want to commit their fleet of troop ships or planes where they might leave England itself ill-prepared to fight, and those that are sent are limited in how many they can take at once.
Nolan takes an impressionistic approach, giving us a number of characters and stories to follow knowing that there are countless more that won’t be told. A British soldier (Fionn Whitehead), the sole survivor of his squad, tries to find some way to exit, connecting with others similarly abandoned. We see the helplessness of the individual soldiers, even as they dutifully line up on the beach hoping for a way out.
Meanwhile, a small fleet of civilian boats are heading from England to France under the theory that these smaller boats can get closer to shore and will be harder targets for the Germans. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and the two young lads he has with him pick up a shell-shocked survivor (Cillian Murphy), horrified at the thought that they are going towards Dunkirk.
A third storyline deals with the RAF pilots such as Farrier (Tom Hardy), whose mission it is to take out the German planes attacking the British ships. These dogfight scenes are not merely thrilling, as if this was some sort of an adventure tale. They are nerve-wracking, as success and failure go back and forth in the blink of an eye.
Overseeing all this are officers under Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), trying to maintain some semblance of order even as they’re being told England will consider the rescue accomplished if only 10% survive.
Nolan and his team keep the action moving forward even as we jump around in time (which is sometimes disconcerting). The various storylines are not running in parallel, and yet through Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography and Lee Smith’s breathtakingly precise editing, we are caught up in the momentum even if we can’t place it on a timeline. When we get to the end, perhaps the biggest surprise–given that audiences presumably know who the victors were in World War II–is how the survivors expect to be perceived and the actual reaction.
“Dunkirk” instantly enters the pantheon of great modern war films, like “Platoon” and “Saving Private Ryan.” These are movies that don’t glorify war, but respect and honor those who have had to endure it.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.