The evacuation of 400,000 British, French and Belgian soldiers in Dunkirk during World War II is an amazing story, and one that has flown under the radar in the U.S., since it didn’t involve any Americans. With the German army surrounding the coastal town of Dunkirk, France, the armies only had one route of escape; via the sea. If the armies surrendered, Germany would have invaded Britain, and from there the United States. It’s one of the defining moments of World War II, and Christopher Nolan has made quite possibly his defining picture in Dunkirk, the director’s take on the evacuation.
Taking a page from Mad Mad: Fury Road, Dunkirk is more about the event than any one character. It tackles the evacuation from the land, the sea and the air. Each storyline lasts a different amount of time (a week, a day and an hour), but in typical Nolan fashion, the storylines interweave and time jumps back and forth.
There isn’t exactly a true “star” in Dunkirk, which features Mark Rylance as a civilian boater, Kenneth Branagh and Fionn Whitehead as the de facto lead, as his character is all over the place trying to get off the beach with One Direction’s Harry Styles in tow. But not to worry, Styles is fine. His presence as a soldier who only cares about survival isn’t a distraction. And yes, Nolan has once again cast Tom Hardy in a role where he wears a mask, a la The Dark Knight Rises, playing a courageous RAF pilot.
It’s hard to get true, genuine scares in a movie, at least for me. Having seen so many films, most standard horrors feel like a 90-minute prank show, with the director hiding out of frame, fingers tapping together like Mr. Burns and muttering “excellent” under their breath as they unleash scare after scare, but Dunkirk delivers 107 minutes of tense, suspenseful film making.
The best CGI for a film is the kind nobody notices, and Nolan knows that. Using practical effects when at all possible, whatever CGI made it into Dunkirk is impossible to spot. Combined with the director’s insistence on using film – mainly the large format IMAX – and the magnificent sound editing, Nolan has crafted a technical masterpiece. At no point does Dunkirk let up, and without CGI robots running around to remind the audience this isn’t real, the film has an authenticity that just doesn’t happen that often. In short, the deep, gorgeous imagery is immersive, the bullets are loud, the engines are louder, and there’s nowhere for the characters, or the audience, to run in Dunkirk.
And it’s scary as Hell.