So far this year, in theatres I’ve seen:
- XXX: Return of Xander Cage (it was a movie, I can give it that)
- Logan (exceptional, with its own review coming at some point)
- The Fate of the Furious, a solid romp if it a bit familiar now
- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, another solid if a bit familiar romp
- Wonder Woman, a blast
- Spider-Man: Homecoming, a charming superhero flick
None of them compare to the overall experience that Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” delivers. “Dunkirk” is a visceral movie, beautifully shot and rendered with expertly mastered sounds that places you directly into the boots of one of the thousands of British soldiers lining the coast of that French town. You are there with them, inhaling the sea, squinting out toward the hope of home while terror rains from the skies. Will you survive? Each time a German plane screams into the scene, you shake with fear. As soon as that engine whine first crosses into your ears, the panic begins.
You know what awaits.
The Germans pinned the British and French armies along the coast in 1940, placing the fate of the war in the balance. Remember: America didn’t join the European theatre until a bit later, so it wasn’t as if the Yanks were on the way. With home only right across the English channel, the specter of a slow, mass slaughter of the British army shone bright in the faces of Winston Churchill and British high command.
I won’t get into all of what happens, but essentially the British populace (coupled with a particularly bizarre easing off the gas by German leader Adolf Hitler) saved the day. Colin Moriarty made a helpful video explaining the story of Dunkirk.
What I most enjoyed about “Dunkirk” was the lack of desire to make this anything except a realistic look at what those days on the beach felt like. This isn’t a human interest story nestled inside a war movie (“Saving Private Ryan”, for example). We hardly even learn the name of a single character, but it makes no difference. Nolan is a master of his craft, maybe among the very best filmmakers alive, and he wields his powers to full effect with “Dunkirk,” wrapping you up in dire emotion for characters you know little about.
What is there to know? If Nolan spends time establishing who Tom Hardy’s pilot or Harry Styles’ soldier are, it diminishes the point. The war was full of men with families and reasons to survive. To focus on just one in a sense takes away from the other.
All you know is that death awaits as the hour glass begins to run dry.
Nolan gives us a glimpse of how morality becomes a sliding scale when men feel such incredible pressures. War, like intense heat upon metal, can warp even the best of us. But good can shine through, and seeing people suffer and yet endure for the good of their country is a powerful image.
“Dunkirk” is exceptional.
[Editor’s note: This post has been updated to fix a mistake about when the United States entered the war.]