REVIEW: Dunkirk

23 07 2017

In a typical war movie, the 400,000 men stranded on the beaches at Dunkirk would command the lion’s share of attention. Their rescuers who arrived by sea in small personal and commercial boats requisitioned for the war effort might get an extended arc in the final act. Their protectors in the air might get a few shots during a climactic battle scene as they fended off the German Luftwaffe.

Director Christopher Nolan, however, is anything but typical. (You probably already knew that.) In his take on “Dunkirk,” each of these three threads takes on an equal narrative standing. Though they span a week, a day and an hour, respectively, their experiences unfold in a simultaneous, but not parallel, manner. The lengths of their contribution might be different, yet their weights are equalized – and their fates are intertwined.

This isn’t immediately obvious from the start of the film. Title cards spell out the duration of each section, but it takes their individual narratives overlapping or colliding for that time to really resonate. Remarkably, the gambit never feels like a gimmick. Nolan pays tribute to each prong of the Dunkirk evacuation by sustaining their story for as long as their lives were on high alert … and then gently ratcheting things down a notch once the end is in sight.

Fionn Whitehead in Dunkirk

Nolan has gained renown for his conscientious manipulation of time, although that is far from the only unique touch he brings to “Dunkirk.” The combatants and conflicts may change in each war film, though a few things usually remain constant: a single protagonist for emotional entry, moments of peace to show the true character of the men away from the battlefield, emphasis on gruesome carnage stemming from battle, exceptional valiance leading to victory. The list goes on and on.

“Dunkirk” eschews almost all of war movie tropes, focusing on the adrenaline-pumping immediacy of an invisible, omnipresent threat. Nolan is far less focused on any spectacular moments of pyrotechnics and mechanics. When he does show them, he tends to hold longer than most filmmakers do. Some directors must cut as a matter of necessity; their imitative effects cannot withstand scrutiny beyond a few seconds.

But even compared to competently crafted works in the genre, “Dunkirk” stands out for its focus on the aftermath of the moments that stop time in other films. The fire emanating from an exploding boat does not interest Nolan so much – it’s the dozens of men frantically swimming for their lives away from the burning wreckage. His film lives and dies in the spaces that other filmmakers excise altogether.

While “Dunkirk” might not be a highly personal war film (I’d have struggled to name a single character leaving the theater), it’s certainly one with great humanistic respect for all those involved in one of the most unconventional military operations in history. Among the pulse-pounding action, he smuggles in some plain-spoken, understated conversations about what it means to be patriotic and heroic in such a disorienting situation. Once the shell shock from his giant images and engulfing sound wears off – ahem, when people catch up with the film at home – these may be a real hidden gem for viewers. B+



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