Christopher Nolan is one of the boldest and most talented filmmakers working today. His ability to combine stunning visuals with compelling, twisty-turny plotlines has made him one of Hollywood’s most bankable and creative directors.
He’s probably best known for “The Dark Knight” trilogy, but movies like “Memento,” “The Prestige” and “Inception” show the guy is able to deliver great, wholly original films.
His latest movie is unquestionably his most conventional. “Dunkirk” is a war movie and is delivered with all of the standard trappings of the genre. It is the story of the unlikely and harrowing escape of the British army from France in the early stages of World War II.
What makes “Dunkirk” stand out is the way Nolan breaks the story up into three separate timelines, which serves to show how the war unfolded at different paces depending on if you were fighting on the land, on the sea, or in the air.
The first group we encounter are the roughly 400,000 soldiers surrounded by the German army patiently waiting to be evacuated by a tiny trickle of British Navy ships. They are constantly harassed by gunfire, artillery shells, and dive-bombing warplanes. We see this days-long assault not only through the eyes of the officers (played by Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy) but also the rank-and-file soldiers (most prominently played by Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, and Harry Styles) who desperately pursue any-and-all means of escape.
The next group we meet are in a civilian boat called in to help in the evacuation, piloted by a quiet, determined man named Dawson (played by Mark Rylance) and aided by his teenage son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his classmate (Barry Keoghan). They have their own perils and horrors to face as they get closer to Dunkirk, including plucking an unstable, shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) from the U-Boat-infested waters.
The final group is a pair of fighter pilots (played by Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) who fly into battle to do their best against the enemy planes that are attacking their troops and bombing their ships. Their aerial dogfights are some of the most visually stunning and thrilling parts of the movie.
While Nolan checks all the boxes when it comes to visuals and plot by thrusting the audience into the center of the action, the one place where “Dunkirk” comes up short is the characters. None of the performances really draw you in. Poor Tom Hardy, who spends nearly the entire movie sitting in one place while wearing an oxygen mask, must have a contractual obligation to not show all of his face while appearing in a Christopher Nolan movie.
And when we finally do stumble on some compelling characters (most of them on Dawson’s boat), we are whisked off to another part of the battle and are forced to put them out of our minds for the next 15-20 minutes.
This is all not to say “Dunkirk” isn’t a solid, well-crafted war movie, but it does fall short of Nolan’s own sky-high standards. It’s also the first Nolan movie where I walked out of the theater without having to do at least a little bit of thinking.
“Dunkirk” is a faithful and well-crafted retelling of an overlooked, but crucial, event in World War II, which is enough to make it worth your time. But it isn’t anything beyond that; which, I must confess, is a bit disappointing.
“Dunkirk” is rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language.