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Dunkirk's (2017) heart speaks louder than its action

August 02, 2017
Director Christopher Nolan has made a stunning career of delving heavily into themes and into the minds of his characters. Frequently, he often centers his stories on time, manipulating its synchronicity and complexity to amplify the drama. Unlike his previous movies languidly exploring his protagonists' psyche, Dunkirk dives right into the heart of a historical event with a surprising, different approach, letting the action do all of the talking.

In May 1940, during the early years of World War II, the Nazis swept through Europe pushing thousands of British, French, and Belgium soldiers to the beaches of Northern France. To avoid being completely wiped out by the Germans, the Brits led an evacuation from the seaside city of Dunkirk. Military vessels were struck down by bombs and torpedoes at every turn, making it far from an easy feat to turn over thousands of fighters to the next battlefield.

To cover the event unfolding on land, in the sea, and up in the air, Nolan splits the story into three points of views. A young soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) joins his comrades on the shore trying to escape on rescue boats. As they dodge attacks from every side, a civilian boatsman Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) races to shore to rescue whoever they can, and a Royal Air Force pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) surveys and shoots down enemy bombers from above. Peril permeates over the course of a week, a day, an hour, as hope remains a distant dream on the horizon.

By the worn faces of its characters, intimate cinematography, and hypnotizing score, the movie intimately locks us into place from the start and rarely lets go. Action is at the movie's forefront, as characters are left with little to any dialogue and trying to survive by any means necessary. In context, there's little doubt that Dunkirk is a violent movie, but instead of plugging blood and gore for the sake of gratuity, it rarely feels over-the-top or excessive. Almost every production element from the heart-pounding score by Hans Zimmer to gorgeous cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema draws us into the carnage, their characters' desperation, and the delicate unity of brotherhood.

Unlike like The Prestige's puzzling rivalry between two magicians, or the identity crisis explored backward in Memento, the all-encompassing tension of Dunkirk isn't Nolan at his fullest stride. The first act unfolds smoothly, introducing sets of characters and their stakes, juxtaposing how every timeline is unique. It's not difficult to follow, nor is boring, but at times, one setting is enough to remain there without having to retreat to the others. This is due in large part to the cast, all of whom are captivating and anchor their individual part to the whole. As the seconds quite literally tick on, every storyline interrupts each other to insert another conflict, becoming fairly cyclical by the second act. When the ending finally arrives, the different perspectives are not without warrant; its violence drawing out the much-needed hope and relief, even if it's the build-up is a little too recurring.

Despite the impressive coverage of the harrowing settings, Nolan's latest hit doesn't necessarily capture that typical spell-binding intrigue he's established over the years. While the narrative sweeps you into the dire environment, the nonlinear structure is both gripping and frustrating. It's not the type of pattern that invites a curiosity to watch it again and again, to see how all the intersections connect, but for some, it might be enough to add to a Nolan-binge-watch-inspired marathon.

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Even though Nolan covers this part of World War II from three different angles filled with brilliant, subtle moments, his aspiration to only cover the British perspective of Operation Dynamo leaves a little to be desired. From Germans halting their advance which lengthened the initial evacuation of 48 hours to a week long affair, to the Royal Indian Army corps delivering supplies, this historical gamechanger is limited by missing fascinating details. This is understandable in regards to Nolan only focusing on those who were in the vicinity, but the pacing might've been remedied if there was a wider variety of characters.

Because of its near non-stop physicality, a frequent criticism Dunkirk faces is that its cold and stark tone removes emotionality towards its leading men and lacks a deeper exploration of backstories. If the movie initially set out to be a lengthier character study but failed to live up to its aspirations, I'd understand how these expectations weren't fulfilled.

However, unlike a lot of war movies failing to show the sacrifice of combat and humanize soldiers, Dunkirk manages this feat by weaving a lot of small details together. Operation Dynamo was seen as a massive failure with military and political powers estimating only saving 30,000-40,000. In reality, more than 300,000 soldiers were rescued and able to move forward in the war. The small cast is exceptional, and to narrow the scope of Dunkirk's reach, the comrades are united by what they share: fear, courage, hope, compassion, kindness, sacrifice, sheer humanity. They rely on and save each other again and again, despite their differences and prejudices, being strangers, and having no reason to reach out but do so anyways. This is the heart of the movie no matter how brutally atmospheric it is.

From Memento to the definitive Batman trilogy and everything in-between, Nolan's filmography is prolifically filled with projects holding a claim of being the best of his career. With an exquisite score, stunning practical production, and remarkable cast, Dunkirk will join those ranks. Dunkirk doesn't melodramatically tug at heartstrings, is perhaps a bit too steady in its action, but still poignantly manages to be a worthwhile experience. It's not personally a favorite Nolan or war-centered movie, but it's up there.

Rating: ★★☆
Have you seen Dunkirk? What did you think?

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