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Three Views: Dunkirk

December 14, 2017

Dunkirk Review By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

When Dunkirk opens, we watch as pieces of German propaganda are dropped from the sky over the head of a terrified young solider named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), who is trying to get across the occupied streets of Dunkirk, France amidst enemy fire, and make his way to the beach in hopes of being rescued.  Right from this tense opening sequence, the film drops us into the chaos of World War II, setting itself up as an exercise in relentless suspense.

Directed by Christopher Nolan, a filmmaker who is capable of pulling off singular and conceptually daring blockbusters, this is another masterful achievement from him that is unique in its own right.  Free of much dialogue and not following an overly complex narrative, Dunkirk is a war movie that instead strips these events down to their basics, offering a visceral exploration of the intense drive for survival that arises amidst battle.

The film tells three interconnecting stories that take place on land, on the water, and in the air, to offer an absorbing portrait of the successful attempts to evacuate 400,000 mostly British soldiers who were left trapped in the French port, and surrounded by German forces, during the Battle of Dunkirk in the spring of 1940.  Each sequence plays out on its own unique timeline, with them eventually converging at various points.  The land scenes span about a week, and we watch as Tommy waits on the beach with thousands of other young men, trying to get onto a ship that will bring them to safety.

The water scenes take place over a day, following Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a civilian who takes out his own boat with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and their helping hand George (Barry Keoghan), to try and rescue men from the beach.  They end up taking aboard a young soldier (Cillian Murphy), who is stranded on the water and suffering from trauma.  The air scenes span only an hour, and follow spitfire pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), who are flying towards the beach, while facing dwindling fuel supplies and fire from enemy planes.

Not only is Dunkirk an absorbing piece of storytelling that thrusts us right into the action, but the film is also impeccably well made on a technical level, using an often stunning mix of images, music and sound effects to tell its story.  The film is relatively bloodless, yet still manages to provide scenes of unshakeable terror, sustaining a heightened sense of tension for almost the entirety of its tightly edited 106 minute running time.  Christopher Nolan masterfully weaves together all three of the film’s separate timelines, cutting between them to maximize suspense, providing further proof of his mastery as a craftsman.

Hoyte Van Hoytema’s sweeping cinematography allows us to be present witnesses to the action, whether showing impressive and humbling flyover shots of the thousands of soldiers stranded on the beach, or taking us into the cramped rescue boats.  Much of Dunkirk was shot on 65mm IMAX film cameras, and the film makes full use of the extra height provided by the giant screen to allow these images to tower over us, especially during the brilliantly choreographed dogfights.  The sound work is also impressive, often rattling our seats, and Hans Zimmer’s percussive musical score provides excellent accompaniment, even incorporating a ticking clock sound into its instrumentation to heighten the sense of tension and provide a pounding heartbeat behind what’s happening on screen.

The film is equally focused on the emotional turmoil of what these men went through, with the often wordless approach allowing the inner struggles of the characters to be portrayed mainly through the faces of the actors, and the entire ensemble cast does phenomenal work.  Mark Rylance continues to prove himself as one of our most quietly expressive actors, with the silent acknowledgement of tragedy registering on his face in one gutting moment.  Tom Hardy delivers an exceptional performance here, with only his eyes visible for many of his scenes, yet still able to say so much. Harry Styles also does great work as another young solder, effortlessly proving that he is more than just a pop star, and handling the dramatic demands of his character extremely well.

This is a visceral experience, a film that encapsulates all of the terror, tragedy and sacrifices of war, showing that the price of freedom is often paid in human lives, and many of the nameless soldiers dropped into the middle of battle are just trying to make it out alive.  It’s not so much a celebration of heroism as it is a profound recognition of the heroism that arrives amidst chaos, and Dunkirk is both a movie and an experience that won’t soon be forgotten.

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Alex (Harry Styles), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) in Dunkirk

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Dunkirk Review By Erin Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

With at times horrifyingly real accuracy, Dunkirk puts onscreen a depiction of the Battle of Dunkirk, France, in the Spring of 1940.  One of the major events of WWII, Allied soldiers had become trapped on a small strip of beach facing the Dunkirk harbour, surrounded by air and ground by the German army, and facing certain death.  Christopher Nolan’s film follows the rescue operations that followed as boats captained by both civilian and military, as well as fighter pilots, attempted to hold back the German front and provide a window of opportunity and means to rescue the Allied Forces from the strip of open beach.

Split into three semi-simultaneous timelines, the film follows one week on land, a day at sea, and one hour in the air.  Each timeline follows its own series of characters each doing their part to either survive, or do what they feel they must to help out.  Whether it is Mark Rylance as a civilian sailor, Fionn Whitehead as a soldier on the beach terrified of his situation yet trying to still remain a ‘soldier’ about it, or Tom Hardy as a fighter pilot struggling to survive dogfight after dogfight to try to stop the German planes from firing on the soldiers trapped like sitting ducks on the beach, all while watching his friends be killed one by one as their planes are picked out of the air.

Each of the characters in the film has a humanity in their interactions and decisions, even those who have one scene or very small parts.  There is a fascinating scene where a group of soldiers is hiding in an abandoned boat that is grounded on the sand.  An argument breaks out as they start to question each other and who is meant to be there – are they British?  French?  German?  How quickly they turn on each other out of fear is played with a scary accuracy (and shows the prowess of the actors involved).

The whole film is like this in a way, watching moments of humanity struggling to confront a dire situation, with fear, heroism, and despair leading every moment.  Helping the actors along are the stunning visual effects and cinematography that captures the full scope of the battle and people it involved.  The film is also surprisingly short at only 106 minutes, but it is because of its tight timelines and editing.  Among war films – and also among the year’s films in general – in my book, Dunkirk is highly recommended for a watch.

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Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) in Dunkirk

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Dunkirk Review By Tony Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Dunkirk is the latest from Christopher Nolan, about the attempt to evacuate some 400 000 allied (mostly British) troops from the port known in France as Dunkerque to the nearby British coast. Occurring in late May and early June of 1940, this story is largely unknown to Americans who only entered the war at the end of 1941 and is not to be confused with the much more tragic evacuation efforts from the nearby port of Dieppe of mainly Canadian troops following an aborted attempt to invade Europe in 1942 as a dress rehearsal for the successful allied D-day offensive of 1944.

Having underestimated the Nazi Blitzkrieg strategy of rapidly overrunning the Low Countries and breaching the old Maginot Line into France, the French troops and British forces sent to defend northern France were outflanked and pinned down at the beaches of Dunkirk, sitting ducks for German artillery and bombing and strafing runs by the Luftwaffe. For reasons still under speculation today, the Germans hesitated to deliver a major attack, which provided a few days for an evacuation that they didn’t expect to succeed.

In a way reminiscent of Nolan’s film Inception, which ran over several different time scales according to the nested dream states in its complicated story, Dunkirk cuts rapidly between three storylines that overlap at crucial points. Brief titles at the opening of the film might have been clear to people familiar with the story but for most people (like myself) would require further study after viewing the film. The Mole storyline, referring to the troops still on the shore, would run about a week, the mole being the sea wall around the harbour where large ships could be moored. The Water storyline, about the flotilla of fishing boats and pleasure craft commandeered by the British navy to aid in the evacuation, would run over a day. The Air storyline, about the dogfights between British Spitfires and German aircraft, would span about an hour.

Aside from brief comments along the way from a British army and navy officer (James D’Arcy & Kenneth Branagh), The Mole has very little dialogue among the brutal scenes of hundreds of nameless troops subject to bombardment, shipwreck and more. The Water takes place mainly aboard the large pleasure craft of a father and adult son (Mark Rylance & Tom Glynn-Carney) with a local boy (Barry Keoghan) along for the ride. On the way to Dunkirk they pick up a shell-shocked pilot (Cillian Murphy) clinging to his downed floating aircraft. The Air is mostly seen from the cockpit of a pilot played by Tom Hardy, his face largely covered (as in The Dark Knight Rises and Mad Max: Fury Road) with a mask.

Over just 106 minutes, Dunkirk takes its viewers on an unforgettable experience of tension and danger with brilliant action scenes supported by a powerful score by Hans Zimmer that is more ambient than melodic. It is one film well worth the premium if you can see it in the IMAX format.

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Consensus: Bolstered by an excellent ensemble cast, impressive cinematography, and a propulsive score by Hans Zimmer, Dunkirk is a thrilling and brilliantly crafted WWII epic, that further cements Christopher Nolan as a master filmmaker. ★★★★ (out of 4)

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