Although “Dunkirk” has been out in theaters for awhile now, this reviewer felt it was important to get in his piece and add praise to what is an already highly-praised film. The reader is thanked for his/her curiosity.
“Dunkirk” is an atmospheric war suspense film reminiscent of “The Hurt Locker” in its focus on war, not as a whole, but by the deeds of just a few men. Journeying through the desperation and heroism of war, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the honor of military participation, it exceeds what we normally expect from war films and even director Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight” trilogy, “Interstellar”).
It is perhaps the lack of the war room or offices of state that keep the viewer so engrossed in the film. Effort and pathos, as well as the customary heroics, are portrayed in close-up detail – no lambs here. It is this turn, that is, to take the focus off of “a few great men,” and portray the harrowing experience of the soldier, the men in the trenches or on the beach, in the cockpits and the ships, that makes “Dunkirk” so amazing to watch.
As a British soldier seeks to meet up on the beach with the rest of the British army, barely surviving a German ambush, and three Royal Air Force pilots seek to protect those preparing for evacuation on the beach, an amateur sailor, Mr. Dawson, his son, and his son’s friend set sail from Britain to Dunkirk to help evacuate the hundreds of thousands of soldiers stranded on the beach. In their sub-plot, they seek what soldiers seek, namely honor and glory. They reflect on manhood and what makes an honorable soldier. They go, not just for their personal honor or sense of obligation, but because of the enormous cost of apathy or ignorance, even from the civilian populace. The Germans are coming, the Germans are coming.
The timely issue of post-traumatic stress disorder is briefly explored as one of the men, a sea commander played by Cillian Murphy (Nolan’s “Inception”), that Mr. Dawson and his son take on their boat after a sinking, refuses to go back to Dunkirk as he experienced the trauma of it firsthand. He eventually lashes out in a violent way and, though he is defended by Mr. Dawson, who has, by the way, already lost a son in the war, his condition spirals into one of fear and self-loathing. He abandons the sailor’s dignity for what many of that time would have called cowardice, but what Mr. Dawson knew intuitively, and what we know now to be an occasional extreme reaction to traumatic events, especially those experienced during war.
As the non-linear plot of the film proceeds, valiant and honor-inspiring Royal Air Force pilots led by Farrier (Tom Hardy) pick off German planes who try to drop bombs on troops waiting on the beach to evacuate. They are felt up-close in the theater as excellent sound direction adds to the immersive experience of the film.
The luck of being not killed, not chosen, is never made so clear as in this film, where partners and compatriots are done off after a moment’s familiarity with other more developed characters. It seems to just be the chance of war that one is spared and another is not. That’s one of those inescapable facts about fighting, one that our soldiers have experienced for all of the history of war, that is, watching friends and brothers die while being spared. “Why not me?” they say. The randomness of it all.
Tense ship-sinking scenes that bring the viewer back to the dramatic and horrifying torrents of “Titanic,” keep the audience glued in their seats. There are at least three episodes of a sinking ship, where the viewer finds himself/herself struggling to breathe and will feel the natural shock of one’s life seeming to be in jeopardy, it’s just so realistic.
Nolan’s run as a bona-fide film-making genius, a genius of mood and theatrics, continues as this film manages to keep viewers in suspense for a solid two hours. Hans Zimmer’s score is powerful and breathtaking, fitting the fear, courage, and pride of war like he has in other films. The scale and scope of firepower and weaponry is felt strongly due to brilliant sound direction and cinematics.
The performances are all beyond par, with that of Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and Mark Rylance, who plays Mr. Dawson, standing out above the rest. Acting is in unison with the mood of the story. And it’s not too early to call “Dunkirk” one of the greatest war films ever made, about equal to the aforementioned “The Hurt Locker” and a little short of “Saving Private Ryan.” A strong example of British pride and honor ingrained in each of its characters, it also stands out as unique to its time and place, with an understated and dramatic reading of Churchill’s famous, “We will fight them on the beaches,” speech to cap it off. “Dunkirk” is a must see, especially for those fans of World War II movies and those looking for an intense season blockbuster. Highly recommended.
By Matthew C. Brock