Harrowing, relentless, and captivating.
In late May of 1940, the Battle of France forced Allied soldiers back to Dunkirk against the sea. Two soldiers desperate to escape, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), look for any opportunity to board one of too-few transports out. On the coast of Great Britain, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) pilots his own ship with his son Peter (Tom Glyne-Carney) to prevent naval officers from commandeering it, one of many small craft heading over the Straits of Dover to attempt rescue. Providing air support, Spitfire pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) follow their squadron leader chasing after a ME 109 German fighter. Overseeing the dire evacuation, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) dread how many of four hundred thousand souls will actually survive.
This isn’t an experience anyone wants, but it is the experience everyone should have… and this is as close as any person should have to come to it. This isn’t a film about fighting a war; it’s a film about survival against overwhelming odds with little chance of escape, both for those seeking a way out and those providing cover so others can. Principal photography took place on-site where and the time of year when the actual event occurred to maximize realism and minimize reliance on CGI effects. While director Christopher Nolan’s epic will be judged on its technical merits, will the end result pay proper respects to this historic event?
It’s impossible for any war film of this scope not to draw comparisons to Saving Private Ryan, but in many ways Nolan surpasses it if only though raw realism. Just when you think you’re safe, you’re not; just when you think it’s over, it isn’t. While following three different viewpoints along variable timelines, you’re dreading being there, excited when things work out, and destroyed when the next thing happens. It’s a fact-based disaster movie that, even if it didn’t happen exactly this way, you can’t help but feel for whomever endured it.
There’s a lot of dirty faces and soiled uniforms throughout the film, meaning that keeping track of who’s who becomes confusing when people start running. You can understand a visceral need to survive when things begin getting shot up, even taking someone else’s place knowing it’s wrong. Moments that seem to take forever become dreadful never knowing when the situation will abruptly change. Investing yourself in the film puts you there suffering alongside everyone else.
This isn’t a film that can be spoiled — it’s history — but the devil is in the details. It’s the side of war that obedient soldiers endure when they don’t know what’s going on back at home; for that experience, take a look at Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour.
Dunkirk is rated PG-13 for intense war experience, some language, and more intense war experience.
Four skull recommendation out of four