Christopher Nolan, one of Hollywood’s best writers and directors, has done it again with the very highly praised Dunkirk. This World War II epic is quite different for American cinema goers, as there isn’t a single American character in the film. Nolan’s typical filmmaking style prevails yet again, which forces audiences to be laser-focused for every second in order to know what is happening. Dunkirk bolsters three timelines, non-linear storytelling, fresh faces, and probably the craziest war story ever. Nolan manages to pack a lot of action into the 106-minute running time, but the film didn’t quite live up to the untouchable level that most critics are painting it to be.
There’s a lot to love about Dunkirk, and it all has to do with the brilliant Nolan, who will probably never make a bad film. Nolan’s interweaving stories can be difficult to follow at times, yet they are extremely interesting to watch. His script follows three branches of the British military through the evacuation of Dunkirk, France in 1940. The first story, “The Mole”, shows the Army infantry on the beaches of Dunkirk during a one-week long struggle for survival. The second story, “The Sea”, occurs over the course of a single day to show the civilian ships that were commissioned by the British Navy sail across the English Channel and evacuate the infantry back to England. The final story, “The Air”, is only an hour out of the same day to simulate the amount of gas that the Airforce planes would have to fly.
The most interesting part of the stories is how Nolan manages to weave them together for the first 80-minutes without a full overlap/intersection occurring. This makes Dunkirk extremely intense and anxiety laced, as it is not immediately clear how all three plots will finally come together. The only missing part of the script was character development. Nolan usually has lots of depth and development with his characters, and while character development isn’t the point of Dunkirk, it was totally non-existent. The only reason to care about the characters comes from the intensity of the situation they all face. The minimal dialogue didn’t bother me at all, nor did the lack of time indicators.
Not only is the military disaster naturally cringe-worthy to watch, the score and sound effects add a whole other level of heightened emotions. Nolan’s films always contain big sound, especially in the IMAX format, but Dunkirk outdoes itself. Right from the get-go, the ear piercing sounds of a rainfall of bullets will let you know that you are in for a crazy ride. The sound effects get louder as the film progresses and literally shook the entire IMAX auditorium I was in from start to end. The constant ticking in the score might drive you mad, but it is an important factor in showing the real peril the soldiers faced. Frequent Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer’s score is brilliant, loud, and proud. The score truly powers the film forward, as there is little dialogue.
The downside to the incredibly loud sound is the same gripe that I had with Nolan’s last film, Interstellar. The sound effects on both films are a few decibels louder than the dialogue, making it hard to hear and understand the characters. I had a very hard time keeping track of what was currently and going to happen while watching Dunkirk because the dialogue was overpowered by both the score and the sound effects. Don’t get me wrong, I think Dunkirk is a runaway favorite to win the Academy Award for Sound Editing, but the mixing wasn’t as good as it should have been.
Visually speaking, Dunkirk is beautiful. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema did an awesome job of making the entire film breathtakingly spectacular. The beach, sea, and air shots are all equally stunning in color and quality. Nolan’s strong belief in shooting with film is definitely a plus for Dunkirk because it adds another level of authenticity to the story. His direction is also as good as ever and shows that he excels at every genre.
The only other factor worth mentioning is the collective acting of all the actors, including the extras. As a whole, the cast did a great job of portraying a very real level of fear, defeat, and fight for survival. I was happily surprised with the acting debut of Harry Styles as one of the infantry. He was actually really good and did much better than I expected. I never thought Styles could be a good actor, and he was the standout in the film. Lead Fionn Whitehead also makes his feature film debut, and I was surprised that Styles had more lines than him.
As a whole, Dunkirk is a good film, but the hype was a bit much. It wasn’t my favorite Nolan film, but it certainly wasn’t my least favorite. I guess I expected a little more from Dunkirk, even though I did thoroughly enjoy the film. The action is intense, and the story will keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s a miracle that a majority of the stranded troops were able to be evacuated, and Dunkirk is a masterpiece in showing the emotions that war brings out in people.
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