Dunkirk Review: A War Movie Done Right


July 26, 2017

Image via Warner Bros.

Watching Dunkirk from an IMAX theatre seat will be the closest you can get to what British soldiers felt during the Battle of Dunkirk, a military operation in World War II in which 400 000 troops trapped in the French seaside town of Dunkirk try to make it home across the English Channel. We see the events of the evacuation through three perspectives, each progressing at different time spans: one week on the beach, one day at sea, and one hour in the air. These three story lines intertwine throughout the film, jumping between each with hardly any transition.

The differing time spans occasionally show events played out twice from different perspectives and some scenes are out of chronological order. While this may seem jarring and confusing for some, the movie is not hard to follow — if you are paying attention, that is. Christopher Nolan’s storytelling method for Dunkirk undoubtedly makes this a better film, keeping the viewer on edge throughout the film and ultimately bringing a satisfying experience when all the timelines sync up. The effect is a loosely connected collection of anecdotes all contributing to the greater story, much like how the characters’ each have their own struggles but it took their combined effort and that of the other thousands involved to successfully carry out the military operation. If you can’t follow this movie, you should go watch the new Transformers movie instead.

Cutting away all the extra fluff we usually see in movies, Nolan masterfully curates the human element to be minimalistic but powerful. There is no unnecessary melodrama, no forced tear jerking moments. The lack of exaggerated heroism simultaneously emphasizes both the plainness of the characters but also their extraordinary mettle and capacity to overcome tribulations. In a greater sense, the blankness and universality of the characters makes it easy for viewers to put ourselves in their position.

In the air, we follow spitfire pilot Farrier, played by Tom Hardy. Even with a mask on his face for the majority of the movie, he does a great job showing the thoughts and emotions of a hardened fighter pilot who needs to make tough decisions. Mark Rylance plays a civilian volunteering to sail his boat across the English Channel to evacuate the trapped soldiers and he successfully encaptures the spirit and bravery of the British people during times of need. Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, and Harry Styles did well portraying young privates who struggle to make it off the beach alive. Kenneth Branagh also did a commendable job as the commander in charge of the retreat. While none of the characters get a detailed backstory or complex character development, the actors bring a sense of sincerity to their roles and you can’t help but root for them.

Watching Dunkirk in IMAX is definitely recommended. The 70mm shots of the beach, the sea, and the amazing aerial combat are breathtaking. Using practical effects instead of CGI, Nolan masterfully directed scenes of sinking ships and airplane dogfights to look as real and intense as possible. While not much gore is shown (especially noticeable during a scene in which bodies are still fully intact with no blood even after being bombed), the scenes of aerial bombardments and soldiers drowning give a visceral sense of dread.

The sound design is also a key element for bringing viewers right into the movie. The haunting sounds of enemy airplanes buzzing over your head, the machine gun fire whizzing right behind your ears, and the explosions signaling the imminent sinking of your ship are punctuated by moments of relative quiet where only the terse ticking of a stopwatch can be heard. Combined with Hans Zimmer’s grand soundtrack, there’s not a moment of rest or comfort, just like a real war. The only downside is that the sounds sometimes drown out the dialogue and it’s hard to understand what they’re saying, especially if you’re not too savvy with British accents.

Overall, this movie is a cinematic masterpiece. This isn’t a character study or a history lesson. Rather, this is a film meant to immerse us in the experience of being involved in the miraculous evacuation of Dunkirk. The sound design, the music, the cinematography, and the story are all made and put together superbly, walking a fine line between being an art film and a popular summer blockbuster.