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 A Nolan Kind of War Movie

Tom Hardy
Tom Hardy
Warner Brothers
 106 Minutes
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance 

For years, the prototype of the big war movie was Daryl F. Zanuck’s 1962 recounting of the Normandy invasion, The Longest Day. With a cast that boasted “42 international stars,” including big names like John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, and Richard Burton in key roles and five different directors (credited and uncredited), the movie did an excellent job of showing both the preparations and the battle itself from virtually every perspective. In addition to winning an Oscar for best visual effects, the film offered several memorable vignettes featuring many of the actors, including Red Buttons as a paratrooper who was stuck on a church steeple for hours. It’s a new century however, and one of the most visionary directors of today, Christopher Nolan, has offered his own version of the big war movie, Dunkirk, a movie that is sure to garner much end-of-the-year award attention and may well redefine the concept of the big war movie.


For those unfamiliar with World War II, in 1940, Germany invaded Belgium and France and overwhelmed the Allied Forces. The bulk of the British army, some 400,000 troops, was soon pinned down near the coastal town of Dunkirk. The British had no way of getting large naval craft close enough to the beach to evacuate the bulk of the troops, so, instead, a large flotilla of commercial and private vessels made the 25-mile trip from the English coast and, over the course of a week, ferried most of the trapped army to safety.


The saga of Dunkirk is remarkable and may well have saved Great Britain from defeat in World War II (had the British surrendered en masse, Hitler might have invaded England and succeeded). Nolan (who also co-wrote the script) obviously respects what happened at Dunkirk and has approached the battle in a far different manner than did the makers of The Longest Day and, indeed, from the way most directors of today would likely have done. Instead of a day-by-day recreation of the events with well-known actors playing the actual participants, Nolan’s characters are entirely fictional and, for the most part, low ranking. Further, Dunkirk clocks in at a brisk 106 minutes, well below blockbuster standards of today, and, ironically, in an era in which CGI wizardry runs rampant, Nolan eschews those effects for the most part, instead using actual aircraft and vessels from the era and old-school effects quite similar to those that Zanuck’s crew employed.


Nolan divides his movie into three interconnected storylines taking place over various periods of time. The first, entitled, “The Mole” follows a British soldier identified in the credits as Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) from his arrival at the British lines in the town of Dunkirk, a few blocks from the beach where thousands of soldiers are gathered. (The mole is the name of the temporary piers that stretched out several hundred feet to where rescue ships were docked.) He is the only survivor of his squad, as the others are mowed down by unseen Germans over the last couple of blocks before safety (in fact, no German troops are seen until the last minute of the film). From there, he spends the better part of a week trying every strategy he can, including finding a wounded soldier for whom to act as a stretcher bearer. But his efforts are thwarted with would-be evacuation ships getting torpedoed and sunk.


The second storyline, entitled “The Sea,” follows a single private yacht owned and piloted by Dawson (Mark Ryalance), who, with his son and a friend, takes the boat out himself towards Dunkirk rather than entrust it to the Royal Navy. Along the way, he picks up a survivor (Cillian Murphy) from a sunken ship who is suffering from severe PTSD and does not want to go back to France. The third storyline, entitled “The Air,” follows three RAF pilots who only have a limited amount of fuel and, thus, time they can spend in active combat. One of the pilots (Tom Hardy) keeps monitoring his ever shrinking fuel gauge as he finds himself having to fend off one German attack after another.


Those who do not pay attention to the titles with which Nolan introduces the three segments of Dunkirk may find themselves confused because events shown in sequence do not necessarily occur at the same time. Indeed, Tommy is on the beach for several days before coming into contact with the other characters in the film. That leads to the audience getting to see a dogfight from the air and then, ten minutes later, seeing the same dogfight from the water. Nolan has played games with time and perspective frequently in his movies, but it’s no mere gimmick here; instead, the converging timelines allow the audience to put the entire battleground and evacuation effort into perspective.


Nolan does employ one gimmick in the movie, however, a naval commander played by Kenneth Branagh who serves as a narrative information dump, who, in conversations with an army officer (James D’Arcy) and various bit players explains exactly the difficulty the British forces faced and their desperate need to get smaller craft to serve as rescue boats capable of reaching the beach as well as the need for an aerial presence to keep German planes from blasting the larger ships to bits. Branagh’s extended role is the only real quibble I had with Dunkirk.


For almost the entirety of the movie’s running time, however, I was simply enthralled by Nolan’s technical mastery. It’s a very claustrophobic film, with most of the action taking place in cramped quarters. He puts the audience in the place of his main characters, hiding in a beached ship as snipers take pot shots at and through the hull for target practice. Scenes like these lead to a rarity in a fact-based war film, namely, a situation in which there is considerable suspense at the key moments of the movie as viewers wonder just what will happen to the main characters. Hans Zimmer helps build that suspense with a pounding undercurrent score (imagine John Williams’ Jaws theme playing for two hours). In addition, at key moments, the screen seems to explode in a jumble as characters scramble for safety. Look for an almost surefire Oscar nomination for cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema.


For all the acclaim Christopher Nolan has received and the distinctive look that nearly all his movies have, he has never received a Best Director Oscar nomination. That’s almost sure to change this year. Dunkirk is one of the most technically adept films of the year, a movie intended to be seen with a large a screen as possible, even though its intimacy is the antithesis of a typical spectacle. Unlike the most memorable moments in World War II from the U.S. perspective (the Pearl Harbor attack and D-Day), Dunkirk has never received an authoritative treatment, despite its place in the history of Great Britain and the British Army and Navy. Nolan took a bold gamble here, eschewing popular film making conventions of today with regularity. The result is a movie that consciously does not attempt to duplicate the battle but to recreate the feel of it. By so doing, he allows audiences to actually experience both the horror and the glory of Dunkirk.

At this time, Warner Brothers has not made any clips available for this movie. However, in this featurette, cast and crew discuss the making of Dunkirk.

Read other reviews of Dunkirk:


Dunkirk (2017) on IMDb