Exactly 20 years ago, James Cameron’s “Titanic” swept America off its feet, with its realistic mammoth recreation of one of the world’s most infamous disasters. It resulted in a whopping 11 Oscar wins, only one of three films to achieve that feat. The subject of this post, might be the next 11 time winner. Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk”, at under 2 hours, is able to astound, intrigue and mesmerize any cinephile or war enthusiast as to the horrors of combat, without the cheesy CGI appearance. This is exactly the way films should appear, to look great and tell the truth about a pinnacle in warfare.
Nolan cleverly weaves three scenarios that each has its own time periods. “The Mole” involves young Army Privates Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), both of whom are trying to find a vessel to seek refuge. “The Sea” focuses on Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and shiphand George (Barry Keoghan) commanding a ship to help in the war effort, eventually rescuing an unnamed shell shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) wanting to go home. “The Air” is about Spitfire pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) trying to outmaneuver German Luftwaffe planes. As each of these scenarios play out, they converge on one another as characters from each part find themselves crossing over to the other narratives and by the end, you grow to appreciate their bravery and courage in battle.
“Dunkirk” is 60% visual and 40% dialogue. Nolan’s purpose is to let the actions of war do the majority of the talking, which is somewhat uncommon in modern films. The war figuratively, is the main character in every shot and plot twist. The soldiers are just witnesses and participants to the turbulence that the main character “war” is unleashing. No one actor is the lead and takes up precious time. It’s a beautifully crafted ensemble of the up and coming young actors making their big break in the business and the older more learned performers like Rylance and Kenneth Branagh doing what they do best. All the actors play opposite “war” and immerse themselves hand and foot into the dangers as if it was pure reality. I wish there were more daring directors like Nolan, that not only portray war, but thoroughly recreate it.
I can see “Dunkirk” win the bulk of the craft Oscars. For starters, Nolan should win for Best Director for being the 21st century’s answer to David Lean as the premier epic filmmaker. Nolan should also win for his screenplay, which carefully crafts three components at three different time periods of one week, one day and one hour into a 106 minute feature. Hans Zimmer should win his long awaited 2nd Oscar for Best Score for beautifully dressing the action with a symphony of dazzling and haunting crescendos.
Hoyte van Hoytema, Lee Smith and Nathan Crowley, as cinematographer, editor and production designer respectively, create an aesthetically pleasing masterpiece with very few flaws in its delivery. You can see the gunfire, feel the sand and the water in your face and be caught up in the chaos one scene at a time. Finally, the sound work in both mixing and editing are just the icing on the cake. You need just the right auditory effects to make war leap off the screen and “Dunkirk” achieves that and more. Finally, with all of these different artistic components, “Dunkirk” should win Best Picture. It’s a no-brainer.
What initially made me excited about seeing “Dunkirk” was that finally, there’s an old fashioned war picture, much like “The Longest Day” and “The Guns Of Navarone” that doesn’t take a side with the conflict, but just portrays the selflessness of all the soldiers involved. You especially see that in Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson, a middle aged civilian doing his part in the war effort. It seems that films today, have to possess some sort of modern politically correct topic, or have some ludicrous plot, in order to be culturally pleasing, instead of telling a story in traditional methods. Luckily, there is Christopher Nolan with his nostalgia like storytelling to bring the good old patriotic war film ensemble to 21st century audiences. Maybe this will tempt other filmmakers to hop on the bandwagon of returning to the old fashioned Golden Age of Hollywood pictures of yesteryear.
In closing, if “Dunkirk” at the very least, does not snag one Academy Award, then I have lost faith in the process of awarding masterpieces. This is probably going to be the best film of the Oscar season. Nothing will ever come close this year, or even the rest of the decade.
So a little artsy film came out this weekend, maybe you heard if it? DUNKIRK. Directed AND written AND produced by (In) Christopher Nolan (We Trvst). Now, while I may not have been as excited for the film as many others, that does not mean I turned in my Nolan fanboy card. To clarify, I didn’t have much hype for this film, and went in sort of just expecting a war film by Nolan. But I absolutely got excited to see it in IMAX! Sure Intersteller was a little disappointing and a bit sappy, but Nolan is essentially the next Kubrick. The man is a visionary, a myth, and a legend, and much like my other fanboy stamps of Tarantino, Scorsese, Fincher, and new addition Villeneuve, they have yet to dramatically fail. The film has a few big names, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, and Michael Caine, but it supposedly had new boys, Fion Whitehead and Harry Styles as the poster boys. Dunkirk weaves a classic Nolan non-linear tale of survival and deliverance in the face of nearly unavoidable fear and death. The true story of 400,000 battle worn, starving, and young and old British men retreating from the impending Nazi Wehrmacht, from Dunkirk, France back to England. While they see their homeland, they lie in wait for evacuation via destroyer, medical transport, and most importantly, civilian boats, to cross the Channel. Separated into three small and localised stories, we follow Fion, Styles, and company on the beach trying to escape by any means, Tom Hardy’s Farrier and his Spitfire squadron, and Mark Rylance’s, Mr Dawson and company sailing across the channel as civilian rescue boats. Each of the three stories are introduced as one week, one day, and one hour, and they occur in a as mentioned above, non-linear structure.
For starters, my three biggest pieces of advice going into the film, 1.) watch it like it was filmed and meant to be seen, IMAX (70MM preferred). 2.) It’s not a traditional war film. Don’t expect a British Saving Private Ryan or smaller Pearl Harbor tale (not the Bay film, just historical event). It’s a film of survival and finding some solace of victory in defeat. And 3.) the film is loud when it needs to be, and quiet at every other moment. If you go to a proper theater to experience this, your seat will literally tremble to the bombs being dropped and to the Spitfire speeding by. But as for dialogue im the smaller moments, there is little of it. If you’ve seen Refn’s Drive with Ryan Gosling, I would say it’s to that level of dialogue almost.
As I mentioned prior, the story is one of survival, hundreds of thousands of men and boys desperately trying to get back home after being defeated. From the sea, German U-boat torpedo and explode ships, from the air, the Luftwaffe send dive bombers and traditional bombers to pick off fish in a barrel, and on land, the French and some British hold off the Germans from breaching the beach. There is action in the film, but not in the traditional sense of a war film. This story seems to be more personal and somber, and executes it greatness in the silence, subtlety, and humanity of the historic event. You can tell that Nolan held this close to him, and I even feel that not having his brother for wiring this time, it gave off a much more personal and auteur vibe. I argue that this film will be one of the classics down the line. Say what you will if you didn’t like it, but in a few decades this will be the new generation’s Paths of Glory, The Longest Day, Thin Red Line, etc. It will be a WWII Film that grandchildren will hear about when discussing war film. While I did not find any of the performances to be groundbreaking or highly memorable, I do believe that the sympathetic plight of those stranded men and just the emotion in facia expression throughout the film starkly captured the sentiment of the moment. In a way, it is sort of an epic, and Nolan recreated various events within Operation Dynamo, as well as in his standard practice, making everything seamless and utilizing real Spitfire, real battleships, etc. I will say though, that the starting shots of the City in the background, seemed a bit too modern for 1940s. It’s exotic colors and prestige condition paralleled to the dark tones of the sea, ships, and soldiers took me out of the moment briefly.
To me, the best storyline of the three, was Tom Hardy and the dogfights he has. Just to imagine the pure ecstasy that was an IMAX camera attached to a real Spitfire, zooming through the air, then shown on a 70mm screen! Praise Nolan. And it wasn’t even the action bits of the dogfights in air that had me excited, it was the pure cinematic scope and visual perfection that Nolan and cinematography Hoyte von Hoytama captured. Beauty in the raw. As I mentioned with the facial expressions, even in scenes of action, it was not necessarily the gun shoots and the bombs that were memorable, more so as the personal vignettes of each tale. These are real people, and each one of them experienced something different. The scope of Dunkirk is just marvelous and following each non-traditional story arch really aided in getting a sense of the chaos, confusion, and struggle to just survive. It is to the severity of turning on your own, as Instinct takes over. And talking and overhearing others after the screening, it did seem that the non-linear structure was not very self-aware. It isn’t obvious until about halfway through the film. To some, that may come off as a bit confusing, but unlike most, Nolan trusts in his ability to convey his story to us, his intelligent audience.
I mentioned that the film is very quiet in terms of dialogue. The script is certainly not one of the best aspects of the film, as it’s minimal and to the point, but also not the most memorable. As a benefit, that means that there is minimum exposition, predominantly given from either Rylance on his boat with his son, or through Branagh’s Admiral. The supposed main character, played by Fion Whitehead has less than 10 sentences, and it is a solid 10 to 15 minutes before we hear much. I personally, do not think that he was anything special, and would even say that Harry Styles did a better job of acting in subtlety. All those big names listed like Hardy and Cillian are more so smaller roles, and predominantly quiet or covered up in blankets or in pilot mask. Overall, the main character is Dunkirk and the overall mass of British, and Nolan just gives us little glimpses into small windows of different individuals. All in all, it is an ensemble supporting role cast.
Aside from the sweeping cinematography in IMAX blowing my mind, Hans Zimmer gave a superb score. Lately, his scores have seemed to be rather similar to others, but I really loved his score for Dunkirk, and it came off more original and at times felt as if blended with the world seamlessly. The crashing waves, the rising tides, the roaring spitfire, explosive bombs, and the creaking ships, everything was amplified by the score. And one of the most unique and fascinating elements of the film, Hans Zimmer’s continuous background ticking. The second the ticking starts, the tension and the intensity of everything becomes amplified to the point where mentally, I feel that there is some psychological urge being created. The moment the ticking slows to a stop, you are at slight ease, as much like a metronome, the absence of it is inescapable. I highly recommend IMAX, not only for the visuals but for the serene pleasure of the score.
I urge you to experience this in cinemas, and nothing less. If you can’t do IMAX, it’ll be a shame, but regular cinema is much better than waiting to see it at your house. Nolan films are always an experience and shear ecstasy to both the mind, ears, and eyes. While it may not be his best film, it is certainly one of the best films of the year so far. I would have to rewatch his other films again, but I feel that Dunkirk may file in behind, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and Inception.
~ 9.0/10 & BSA ~
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Small PSA, before to cover my tracks for a small break. I will be traveling abroad this weekend, well actually tonight. I’ll be going to visit the wonders of Perú, and will be gone for about a month. Will I have reviews posted whilst there? Well, it all depends if they release new films, and if I have time. So there’s sadly a chance I’ll be missing out on Atomic Blonde, The Dark Tower (!), Detroit, and maybe a few more. So if the films are released there, I’ll do my la best to find them not dubbed, and if not, I’ll shift back into gear right before school starts. As always, Thank you.
Warner Bros. submits Dunkirk for awards. Christopher Nolan competes in more than one category. All cast will campaign for supporting & Hoyte Van Hoytema for best cinematography. The film will also compete in best production design, best editing, best costume design, best sound mixing & editing, best make-up & best original score.
The audio was visceral and scary. When the first bullets flew by our protagonist’s head, I jumped in my seat. The shock of bullets whizzing past and ricocheting against a building or a boat’s metal hull is horrifying, and I was glad not to have experienced it, as well as hopeful that I never will.
The phrase “Home”, although carrying one of the film’s most poignant themes, was repeated one time too many times in my opinion: the second time, in the interaction between infantry Colonel Winnant (James D'Arcy) and Navy Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh). I wonder if there was a sense of obligation to abide by the rule of three, for the theme to be recognizable and compatible with as many people as possible.
Great soundtrack, although I may have been too conscious of it after taking Hans Zimmer’s masterclass on film composition. I really liked it when the ticking noise stopped as soon as the lead, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), fell asleep in the train at the end.
Powerful irony at the end where the one soldier doesn’t realize that the old man greeting them is blind and he decides that no one will even be willing to look at the returning soldiers. His own convictions and sense of failure blinded him to the truth the blind man quietly espoused: surviving is enough.
There were such grace and serenity in the story of the pilot, Farrier (Tom Hardy). His masterful, patient, and courageous fighting and landing encapsulated what seems to be the incredible achievement of the escape from Dunkirk and of winning WW2 in general. With no fuel, he managed to defend the remaining infantry on the beach and then land peacefully on the shore. Hardy once again acts primarily with his eyes, and does so very well, portraying realistically the behaviors of a hero.
The overall simplicity of the film was one of its strengths. The three parallel stories and their themes were straightforward and minimalistic in their telling, which was the main reason the film’s poignancy did not cross the line into the banal. As I see it, “the mole” focused on resilience and pure survival, “the sea” on empathy, and “the air” on courage.
The story of the rescued soldier (Cillian Murphy) was well-told, his performance subtle and heartbreaking. The shell-shock and pain were convincing, as was his helpless frustration with it all, and his regret for his fatal outburst. At the end, when through the crowd he saw the body of the boy he had accidentally killed, we suddenly lose him and never see him again, mirroring the loss he felt at that moment. The boy who tried to protect him from this truth grew in the process.
The old man (Mark Rylance) and his grief is hidden well, his motivation remaining a mystery until the very end. When we learn that he has recently lost his older son in the Air Force, his early comments and determination are explained.
Successful, minimalistic storytelling. It left its mark on me.
Looking back the World War II drama called “DUNKIRK”, I realized that I had made a few assumptions about it. One of those assumptions was that the movie would be a call back to those old war epics of the 1960s and 1970s that featured a running time between two to three hours long and an all-star cast. I was proved right … on one matter.
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, “DUNKIRK” is about simply about one thing … the British Expeditionary Force (BEF)’s evacuation from Dunkirk, France. The BEF, along with the French Army had been forced to retreat to the city next to the English Channel in early June 1949, after failing to halt the German Army invasion of France. Although British, French and other European forces found themselves trapped at Dunkirk, Nolan’s movie mainly focused on the British troops awaiting evacuation.
Nolan wanted to convey the evacuation from three perspectives:
“The Mole” focused upon the efforts of a young British soldier named Tommy to survive as long as he could and get himself evacuated from Dunkirk as soon as possible. Tommy is eventually joined by a silent soldier who called himself “Gibson”, another soldier called Alex and a group of Scottish soldiers who make several attempts - using a wounded soldier, a ship that ends up being torpedoed by a German U-boat, and a Dutch trawler - to escape the beach in front of Dunkirk over a period of a week.
“The Sea” featured the experiences of a Mr. Dawson of Weymouth, England; along with his son Peter and the latter’s best friend George Mills as part of an armada of British civilian boats sent across the English Channel to help evacuate the trapped at Dunkirk. The experiences of the Moonstone’s crew, which takes place over a period of a day, included the journey across the Channel; their rescue of a shell-shocked Army officer, who was the sole survivor of a wrecked ship; an unexpected and tragic mishap between the officer and George; and the crew’s rescue of a downed R.A.F. pilot named Collins.
“The Air” followed the experiences of Collins, his fellow pilot Farrier and their leader, “Fortis Leader”. Due to the amount of fuel in their Spitfire fighter planes, the trio only have an hour to protect the evacuating troops from the Luftwaffe. “Fortis Leader” is immediately shot down during a dogfight. During the same fight, Farrier assumes command and his fuel gage is shattered. But when Collins is shot down during another dogfight, Farrier is left alone to protect the evacuating troops from the air … using a reserve tank of gas.
Another assumption I had formed before seeing this film was that the story was told in chronological order. Only I had failed to pay attention to the three different time spans that Nolan had conveyed at the beginning of each segment. So, after watching Mr. Dawson and his small crew rescue the shell-shocked officer, I was taken aback at the sight of the same officer preventing Tommy, Gibson and Alex from boarding his doomed ship from the mole (a long pier) later in the film. It was my sister who reminded me of the time differences of each segment. In other words, from their perspective, Tommy and his fellow evacuees had met the officer (who was far from shell-shocked at the time) later in the week they had spent on the French beach. From Mr. Dawson’s perspective, Peter and George had rescued the officer not long after their departure from England.
A part of me wondered if utilizing this non-linear narrative to tell this story was really necessary. Then it occurred to me … it is only natural that soldiers like Tommy would spend at least a week trapped on the beach. It was natural that the crew of the Moonstone would spend only a day traveling between England and France, across the Channel. And it was especially natural that pilots like Farrier and Collins would only spend at least an hour in the air, considering that they were limited by their fuel supply. And if Nolan had told his story in a rigid linear manner, he would have lacked enough time to focus on “The Sea” and “The Air”segments. Looking back on how Nolan handled the time span of his story, I found it very clever. More importantly, a sense of urgency seemed to increase as the three segments eventually converged near the end of the movie.
I also noticed that “DUNKIRK” had a running time of 106 minutes. This is completely different from other World War II dramas with an all-star cast. And yet, I was not even aware of this shorter running time. I became so engrossed in the film that I barely noticed how long or short it was. And if I must be frank, I am rather glad that the movie only ran less than two hours. I do not think I could have handled more than two hours of that film. It was so damn tense … and nerve wracking. The movie featured so many interesting and tense scenes.
Among those scenes include Flight Officer Collins being shot down over the English Channel and his efforts to free himself from his damaged Spitfire before he can drown. Another scene that nearly had me biting my nails featured Tommy, “Gibson” and Alex trying to escape a damaged ship after it had been torpedoed. A real nail biter proved to be the rescued shell-shocked officer’s encounter with the crew of the Moonstone. I found that sequence both tense and tragic. Ironically, the three most tension-filled scenes occurred in the movie’s last twenty to thirty minutes. One of those scene featured Tommy’s efforts to defend “Gibson”, who had revealed himself as a French soldier, from Alex and a group of Scottish troops inside a damaged Dutch trawler under fire by German troopers. I also found Farrier’s last dogfight against a German fighter rather tense to watch. Ironically, this dogfight led to another tense scene featuring Tommy and the other soldiers, as they try to reach a minesweeper and later, the Moonstone amidst burning fuel from the Messerschmitt shot down by Farrier.
There are other aspects of “DUNKIRK” that I admire. One of them turned out to be Hoyte van Hoytema’s photography, as shown in the images below:
I thought his cinematography was absolutely spectacular. And I hope that van Hoytema will receive an Oscar nomination for his work. I was also impressed by Lee Smith’s editing. Between Nolan’s direction and Smith’s editing, the movie marched at a pace that really impressed me … especially the scenes mentioned in the previous paragraph. Nathan Crowley is another I believe should be considered for an Oscar nomination. As the film’s production designer, I thought he did an excellent job in re-creating wartime Northern France and Southwestern England, circa 1940. Jeffrey Kurland did a solid job in creating costumes that reflected both the film’s characters and settings. But they did not particularly blow my mind. As for Hans Zimmer’s score, I found it … okay, I simply do not recall it. What can I say?
I found the performances featured in “DUNKIRK” very admirable. The movie featured solid performances from Kenneth Branaugh and James D'Arcy, who seemed to have formed a pretty good screen team as a pair of British senior officers awaiting evacuation. Mark Rylance gave an admirable performance as the patient, yet commanding Mr. Dawson, owner of the Moonstone. Aneurin Barnard managed to effectively convey the emotions of the French soldier “Gibson” with barely a line or two. Jack Lowden was very effective as the strong-willed Flight Officer Collins. I could also say the same about Barry Keoghan’s performance as Peter Dawson’s eager friend George Mills, who volunteered to accompany the Dawsons to Dunkirk.
But one of the performances that truly impressed me came from Harry Styles as the belligerent soldier Alex, who did a great job of expressing his character’s willingness to cross the moral line for the sake of survival. I also enjoyed Tom Glynn-Carney’s portrayal of the growing maturity of Mr. Dawson’s son, Peter. Cillian Murphy gave a superb performance as the shell-shocked Army officer whom the Moonstone crew rescues from a sinking ship. Tom Hardy seemed to have even less lines than Aneurin Barnard. But with very little lines and a great deal of facial expressions, he was marvelous as the R.A.F. pilot Farrier, whose seemed determined to protect the evacuating troops as long as possible within a space of an hour. The role of the everyman soldier, Tommy, proved to be Fionn Whitehead’s third or fourth role in his career. Yet, this barely 20-something kid did a superb job in carrying most of “The Mole” segment on his shoulders. With a few lines and some great silent acting, Whitehead managed to convey Tommy’s growing desperation to escape the Dunkirk beach … but with his moral compass intact.
I do have one complaint about “DUNKIRK”. Although I realized that “DUNKIRK” was basically about the evacuation of the BEF, a part of me wish that Nolan had did more to set it up. Nolan flashed a brief paragraph about Allies’ retreat to Dunkirk before starting the film. I did not expect the director to go into details about the events that led to the retreat. But damn! He could have spared more than one measly paragraph.
Otherwise, I was very impressed with “DUNKIRK”. Very impressed. Despite my fears that it would prove to be another one of those two-to-three hour World War II epics with a cast of thousands, the movie proved to be something different. Nolan took the World War II epic trope and nearly turned it on its ears with a smaller running time and a non-linear narrative that emphasized the importance of time. It also featured a superb cast led by the likes of Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance. Is it the best World War II movie I have seen? I cannot answer that question for it would be subjective. But it may prove to be one of my favorites.