Christopher Nolan is a filmmaker who has earned the right to make whatever he pleases with numerous films under his belt that were financially and critically successful with a fairly wide range of genres and scales. Having made everything from small, non-linear crime capers to sprawling (not very good) sci-fi epics, Nolan set his sights on a mostly untold story from World War II. Specifically, the battle at ‘Dunkirk’.
I will admit the apprehension I had going into this film as both the PG-13 rating and the short runtime of 106 minutes were puzzling to me. Neither of these benchmarks scream War Epic to me but that is due to decades of conditioning from movies like ‘Apocalypse Now’ to ‘Saving Private Ryan’. My apprehension was quickly thrown out as Nolan makes it clear from the jump what kind of story he wants to tell. Even though this takes place during an important battle in World War II, ‘Dunkirk’ feels small and will shower you in dread and tension from beginning to end. Nolan uses the entirety of his learned skills and talented cast and crew to achieve this with great success.
Immediately, Han Zimmer’s score will showcase the tense environment of ‘Dunkirk’, using his ability to craft a beautiful original score while blending in real-world sounds seamlessly. His use of chanting in the score for ‘The Dark Knight’ Rises comes to mind as this blend is not unlike his use of a ticking clock throughout ‘Dunkirk’. When you add this to Hoyte Van Hoytema’s brilliant use of the camera in both aerial shots utilizing large-format cameras as well as claustrophobic depictions of being crushed or drowned, audiences will be unable to release their armrests for an hour and a half.
You won’t see the cast of ‘Dunkirk’ holding one another, covered in blood and dying or any real gore for that matter as Nolan has approached this story as one of survival and suspense rather than the more traditional action-oriented bloody affairs that are war films. Nolan trusts his cast to execute his vision with almost no dialogue throughout which is a feat that should not be slept on. The audience feels what these men feel through genuine expressions and reactions to harrowing events, not through lengthy backstories or monologues about the families they have waiting for them at home. This approach to his cast is why having unknown faces sharing the screen with stars never removes you from this film. Actors like Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard and Barry Keoghan are never overshadowed by more familiar faces such as Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy or Tom Hardy. This is a testament to Nolan’s ability to pull out great performances and the talent of the entire cast, both known and unknown.
A detailed or lengthy synopsis of this film isn’t necessary and won’t prepare you going into the theater. You only need to know that Nolan has made up for his sins (‘Interstellar’) with ‘Dunkirk’. Nolan is able to tackle three connected stories taking place at different times seamlessly while never letting his audience relax. Everything from the cast to the editing to the score work together to tell a story of survival and suspense and dread and hope. ‘Dunkirk’ is a film that will show you why you why the name Christopher Nolan gets you excited to go to the theater.