Dunkirk (*****): They know where you were

dunkirk

Dunkirk – 2017

Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring  Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy

There’s not much can be said about this film that hasn’t already been mentioned. It’s a great film. An apolitical film. It is a patriotic film. It is a smart film. It is anonymous. It is deeply personal.

Taking place by land, by sea and by air over three different time periods, Dunkirk covers the escape attempt of over 400,000 soldiers from the shores of France early in World War II. The Nazis are faceless. We barely see even one. But they are a looming presence. The film starts off with the starling noise of gunfire. 5 out of 6 soldiers never make it over the fence to safety. And that’s just the start of it.

The film documents each of the stories in an overlapping but still cohesive manner. We don’t know exactly how things are lining up, but we do know that everyone ends up on the shores of Dunkirk eventually. It’s a masterwork of timeline manipulation by a filmmaker who’s already shown the propensity to cleanly slice up time in Inception. Everything pieces together in a tense bundle.

We feel the desperation of young soldiers (Whitehead, Barnard and Styles) looking for a way onto a boat that might survive the trip off shore. We get to experience the urgent need of a pleasure boat owner (Rylance) who quickly joins his fellow boat owners in a pursuit against time to make sure the boys get a ride home. We see two pilots (Lowden and Hardy) who take their chances against waves of German Luftwaffe planes as they try to protect the boats from the air.

Watching this film made me feel like I was living history. It is a gorgeous, horrible masterpiece that shows what the British Army of WWII had more pluck than luck. More guts than glory. This feels like the loss that turned everything around.

Is there a better director right now than Nolan?  No one seems to be able to handle grand scale on such a personal level. To tell a story that everyone can relate to without one bit of preaching. His voice is very human and there is nary a scene so obvious as a red coat in a black and white background.

Sure, he has his tells, but they are truly more mesmerizing than others. Like the man walking into the sea in the middle of the story. The soldiers just look on. Like us, they can do nothing but watch and keep looking for opportunities to survive.

The lack of gore while still capturing the horror is an achievement as well. There is no need to fill in the gaps. Our minds can do this and still resonate to the truth of the situation.

The best thing Nolan does with Dunkirk is to never lose focus. He is the mariner, Mr. Dawson, and we play the part of Peter. He knows the plane just by the sound, but he still lets us see it so we can remember too. Feeling like it might be hopeless, one might be tempted to speechify and let us know the significance of it all. He just moves towards the battle, but picks up one life at a time.

In the end, we know where they were. And now we know why it mattered.

If this film doesn’t win any awards, it’s still the best film of the year.

(***** out of *****)

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