The filmmaking virtuoso who brought us Memento and The Dark Knight is back to dazzle us once more with Dunkirk, the gripping WWII story of heroic sacrifice.
Christopher Nolan has never been one to shy away from cinematic challenges, and Dunkirk is no outlier to this methodology. The film was beautifully shot by Hoyte van Hoytema in 70mm (watch it in IMAX 70mm if possible), and not a single frame in the 120 minute thriller is wasted. Nolan’s use of this format is masterful and commemorates the artistry of filmmaking, unlike Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. The conventionality of Nolan’s color scheme in this film is not only aesthetically enjoyable, it makes sense. The deep blues and vibrant oranges pop off the screen while the grey of war leaves us with holes in our hearts. Nothing with Nolan is fake. Therefore, appreciate the long sequences in the air tailing fighter planes, the terrifying underwater scenes and the explosions, because it is all real. More accurately, it is jaw-dropping and equally horrific. Only Nolan could make the massive Dunkirk beach feel claustrophobic.
The film is set in 1940 during WWII, and Hitler has pushed 400,000 British, French, Canadian and Belgian soldiers to sea, trapping them on the beaches of a small French town called Dunkirk. The soldiers all await evacuation while the imminent threat of death looms over their shoulders. To put it simply, the Allied troops are dead-men walking, stuck on a beach that allows for a pain-staking spectacle to watch. The English Channel is too shallow for large rescue ships to pass through, meaning the lives of 400,000 men rest in the hands of brave civilians daring enough to pass underneath the German air fleets. Nolan states in the opening titles of the film that a miracle is the only thing that would save these men. Well a miracle is what they got.
The successful evacuation of these troops was only made possible by a handful of prominent heroes the story follows. First, civilian boat captain Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), fighter pilot Farrier (the always masked Tom Hardy) and Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) to name a few. Although Nolan cuts right to the action leaving out any backstory, it is easy to empathize with the incredible heroes that fought for each other and for their country. On the other hand, Nolan strips the Nazis of any human quality. They stand merely as grey wisps in the sky, bomber planes but never faces. The soldiers on the beach and the audience can hear them coming but we never are truly connected to the enemy.
The sounds of the planes and the explosions, the panting and running, gasping and breathing, the underlying ticking of a clock to emphasize the importance of haste, all of these sounds contribute to a riveting, viewing atmosphere. Hans Zimmer’s all so familiar score pulsates through this film with an electrifying cadence that may only be out-shined by Hoytema’s cinematography. The cacophony of war is so breathtaking that not a moment of relief goes by until the final cut to black. Dunkirk leaves us hanging to the edge of our seats, looking to the horizon for the British ships, and it isn’t until the sun finally rises in the end that we can exhale.
Undoubtedly, this Christopher Nolan film is Oscar-worthy and one of his highest rated films to date, which begs the question: is Dunkirk Nolan’s magnum opus? Historical war films often receive waves of historical accuracy criticism, however, Nolan tackles this story with such honest grace that all the critics will be talking about this summer is the raw emotion of the narrative. In a present-day that offers a world of doubt and uncertainty, Nolan gifts to his audience solace. Solace in a film that shows the suppressed fighting together and forging bonds out of suffering. It is the best film so far this year, and I would be remiss if I did not answer my own titular question. Yes, this is Nolan’s magnum opus.