Dunkirk is the true story of when Allied forces were surrounded at all sides, pushed back to French beaches and 400,000 men stared across the channel at their home, so close yet still unreachable.
In a grounded and tense look at the experience of the British and French soldiers, Christopher Nolan delivers a screenplay that tells it like it was, in form and function, honoring the men that served without dumbing down a story for quick and easy consumption.
The film runs at 1hr 46min but it feels like an elongated epic war picture, drawing out every detail to piece together a deceptively simple puzzle.
Dunkirk unfolds itself through three points of view. We follow the thread of land (infantry) over one week, sea (navy) over one day, and air (air force) over one hour. The genius of structuring the story around the true experience of individual soldiers created a vignette around each journey that truly feels like a walk in their shoes. The story structure weaves in and out of these places in time, true to Christopher Nolan’s love of temporal complexity, and brings the infinitely rising tension to a fitting crescendo.
Every sequence in the film is about being trapped. Creating a movie with a palpable essence; even if you were to remember one or two scenes, you could piece together the entire film. Everyone we follow throughout the story felt trapped, and the feeling is hauntingly present throughout the story, leading our characters into harrowing situations where they are confined, trapped with all sides closing in.
An unseen enemy surrounds you just out of frame for the entire runtime: unseen soldiers, bombs and gunfire, rushing water, all of which cannot be reached or directly fought but can reach you, a touch of terror that simmers beneath the surface. The intensity of the situation boils out with the masterful soundtrack that leads you through walking the plank with expert utilization of the aptly named “Shepherd’s tone” – check out the Vox video essay on this wonderful piece of sound design:
Eventually the evacuation of Dunkirk successfully saved 338,000 men, 10 times the expected count.
With such realistic and grounded camera work, the film feels like a documentary shot by an invisible time lord (I’m not saying that Christopher Nolan is one, but I’m not ruling it out either), along with the use of massive numbers of extras (approximately 1,500+) and using real navy ships as opposed to CGI, little details of realism shine through and elevate the tone of the film while supporting the beauty of shots captured by the wide format and glorious IMAX cameras.
This is one you’ll want to spring for the extra couple of dollars to see while it’s still in theaters.
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