★★★★★ - A Review by Cameron Kanachki
"We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas & oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence & growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields & in the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender. And if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated & starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed & guarded by the British fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power & might, steps forth to the rescue & the liberation of the old."
Those famous words spoken in an amazing speech by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on June 4, 1940 after the 8-day long mass evacuation of 338,226 British soldiers off the beaches of Dunkirk, France, when only 30,000 were expected to be evacuated, showed that while wars aren't won by evacuation, the British would always stand their ground against the Nazi regime in World War II.
The evacuation is so excellently depicted in Dunkirk, the greatest war film ever made. Set over the 8-day period from May 26, 1940 to June 4, 1940, the film follows the evacuation through a tryptich (three perspectives): the people on the land, which takes place over one week; the people on the sea; which takes place over one day; & the people in the air, which takes place over one hour.
On the land, the perspective is shown through the eyes of five people: British Army soldiers Tommy (played by Fionn Whitehead), Alex (played by Harry Styles), & Gibson (played by Aneurin Barnard); Colonel Winnant (played by James D'Arcy), & Commander Bolton (played by Kenneth Branagh). Tommy was the only member of a group of several soldiers to make it to the beach, as the others were killed by unseen German soldiers. On the beach, he finds Gibson. Tommy & Gibson try to get off of the beach by carrying a wounded soldier on a stretcher to a ship, but they are denied passage. They decide to wait on the mole for the next ship. As the next ship arrives, they save Alex from being crushed by the ship.
While they try to leave, Commander Bolton & Colonel Winnant discuss the matter at hand. Prime Minister Churchill has rejected surrender demands from the Germans, & is adamant that at least 30,000 soldiers be evacuated from the beaches. In order to evacuate as many as possible, he has declared that the British Navy requisition small vessels to help evacuate the men.
On the sea, the perspective is shown through the eyes of four people: mariner Mr. Dawson (played by Mark Rylance); his son Peter (played by Tom Glynn-Carney); Peter's friend George (played by Barry Keoghan); & a Shivering Soldier (played by Cillian Murphy). Although Mr. Dawson does cooperate with the British Navy, he, along with Peter, decide to take the boat themselves to Dunkirk, rather than let the Navy commandeer it. George decides to join impulsively, hoping to do something noteworthy. On their way to Dunkirk, they encounter the Shivering Soldier on the wreckage of his ship, as he was the only survivor of a U-boat attack. The Shivering Soldier is obviously shell-shocked. He, along with many others during the war, will never be the same.
Once the Shivering Soldier is on the boat, he asks where they are headed. Mr. Dawson tells him they are headed to Dunkirk, to which the Shivering Soldier becomes apprehensive towards. He obviously does not want to head back, as there is a good chance they will die. Mr. Dawson tells him that there's no hiding from it & that it is their job to rescue the stranded men.
In the air, the perspective is shown from the eyes of two people: Royal Air Force pilots Farrier (played by Tom Hardy) & Collins (played by Jack Lowden). They are to provide air support to the troops at Dunkirk, with adamant instructions to ration as much fuel as possible. Farrier's fuel gauge has malfunctioned, but he continues on. When a Luftwaffe plane shoots down the squadron leader, Farrier assumes command.
The cast is excellent. Hardy, Rylance, Murphy & Branagh give excellent performances as they always do, & I wouldn't be surprised to see them considered as Oscar contenders. But the best performances come from the two acting newcomers: Harry Styles & Fionn Whitehead.
Styles, known for being the frontman of the boy band One Direction, surprised me with his stunning performance. I was apprehensive about his casting in the film, as I was not impressed with him during his time in One Direction, which I hate with a burning passion (although he is so much better as a solo artist). But alas, singing ability does not correlate with acting ability, & his performance is one of the best acting debuts in recent memory.
Whitehead, coming from relative obscurity (his only other acting credit being the 2016 British miniseries HIM), gives an excellent debut performance. Compared to a young Tom Courtenay by director Christopher Nolan, Whitehead exhibits an amazing force of tenacity not shown much in acting debuts. His performance is definitely the best of the year so far.
Christopher Nolan's direction is excellent, & this is by far his best film yet. Having directed a masterpiece every time he's been behind the camera, Nolan ditches his usual tactic of screwing with your mind for a different kind of war film. He called the film more of a suspense film, than a war film, & also stating that it doesn't concern itself with the bloody aspects of war. And I commend Nolan for that. Even without showing the graphic details of war, Nolan still makes this film so gripping & intense, & to be perfectly honest, it made me feel more tense than I felt when I watched Saving Private Ryan. Also, I commend Nolan for his idea to not show one single German in the film. Even without them being seen, they still give off an overwhelming sense of dread.
And Nolan's screenplay is also excellent. Even though there is not one single character that is the main focus, & even though all the characters have a limited amount of screen time, Nolan still develops them into characters we care about & that have flaws, making them the most genuinely human characters in a war film. And even with a purposefully limited amount of dialogue, Nolan still gives off a lot of emotion in the script.
The only word I can use to describe Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography is "wow." Shot on IMAX 65mm & 65mm large format film stock & projected on 70mm film, Hoytema's camera work is almost a character itself. Every shot is immaculate, & this is definitely some of the best cinematography in years. 70mm is the best way to see this film, & you should try to see it in this format instead of digital projection.
Lee Smith, Nolan's go-to guy for editing his films since Batman Begins, has edited this film masterfully. Nolan compared editing this film, especially the aerial sequences, to a chess game. Well, he definitely must have decisively won that metaphorical chess game, as this film is perfectly paced & assembled.
Jeffrey Kurland, returning to work with Nolan for the first time since Inception, has made the costumes with an almost precise vision. The uniforms of the members of the British Armed Forces in the film look exactly how they did back in 1940.
Nathan Crowley, also Nolan's main guy for production design, modeled this film amazingly. Everything looks a lot like it did back in 1940, & the sets have done their job: they immersed us into the time the film is set in.
The sound design is impeccable. Every single gunshot, explosion, & engine sound is so immersive. And every sound is loud, especially the sounds of the battle sequences, which were so loud & jarring I was very shaken by it & I felt like I was right there with the soldiers.
Hans Zimmer, one of the best film composers of all time, & one of the best composers in general, has composed his best score yet. Having worked with Nolan since The Dark Knight, & having done an excellent job at composing at not only every film with Nolan, but at every film, Zimmer uses percussion & a recording of a ticking watch for his score, building up the already high amount of tension to a breaking point.
And the visual effects are stunning. Every sequence immerses you, & that's in no small part helped by the explosions of the bombs, torpedoes & missiles fired off.
This is by far the best film of the year so far. It's so tense, bombastic & chaotic, & it doesn't let you go from its tight grip through all 106 minutes of the film.
Dunkirk was seen by me at the AMC Forum 30 in Sterling Heights, MI on Friday, July 21, 2017. It is in theaters everywhere in digital projection, & it is showing in 70mm at the AMC Forum 30 in Sterling Heights, MI & the AMC Livonia 20 in Livonia, MI. Its runtime is 106 minutes, & it is rated PG-13 for intense war experience & some language.