Christopher Nolan’s magnificent “Dunkirk” is the anti-blockbuster blockbuster, full of brains, grit and a fearlessness to challenge superhero-drunk filmgoers to invest fully of themselves by finding meaning in every exquisitely shot frame of what ranks as the current Oscar film to beat. It displays such visceral realism, you might find yourself ducking when the barrages of German bullets fly in search of their sitting-duck targets. Those would be the rapidly retreating hordes of British and Allied troops trapped between Hell and the English Channel. You marvel at the juxtaposition of the fear, the panic, the doom with the long, beautiful pristine French beach where the ebbs and flows of life and death play out mercilessly for days on end.
For those who slept through history class, Dunkirk is where the Germans enjoyed their finest hour, literally driving the last of the resistance off the European mainland — just mere miles from where the good guys would take it back 4 years later on D-Day. Nolan trusts you know all this because he offers zero scene-setting; thrusting you right into the action from the get-go and never taking time to explain. Yet, everything that’s happening is crystal clear. Well, sort of. I must admit it’s a bit confusing at first, as you acclimate to Nolan’s trippy use of time, something the writer-director has made a trademark of in his non-Dark Knight films like “Memento,” “Interstellar” and “Inception.” But this time it feels less like a gimmick; more like a necessity.
The evacuation lasted a grueling 10 days (May 26 to June 4, 1940), so to both capture the longevity and the urgency of the dire situation, Nolan divides his film into three overlapping stories: One is by land, which lasts a week; two is by sea, lasting one day; and three is by air, lasting one hour. It makes for a formidable juggling act by Nolan, who regularly intersects the three strands via flashbacks, coincidences and alternating perspectives. Yes, it’s challenging, but it’s also mind-blowing. And the action is nonstop, as are the thrills.
Like a horror story, the array of heroes Nolan introduces us to are charged with dodging one calamity after another to stay alive. For barely legal Tommy (peach-fuzzed Fionn Whitehead), it’s finding a way to sneak past the mile-long lines of soldiers waiting their turn to board the precious few boats departing for England. For citizen soldier, Mr. Dawson (the always fantastic Mark Rylance in a powerfully understated turn), it’s maneuvering his wooden yacht Moonstone through the 26 miles of dangerous waters from the south of England to Dunkirk, where he’s been commissioned — like hundreds of other private boat owners — to rescue as many soldiers as possible. And for ace RAF fighter pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), it’s executing the near-impossible task of keeping the Luftwaffe from carpet bombing an expansive beach blanketed by Allied soldiers for as far as you can see.
The ease in which Nolan weaves these strands is a testament to both his imaginative mind and the brilliance of two-time Oscar-nominated editor Lee Smith (“The Dark Knight”). So smooth are the transitions, it takes a few seconds to realize you’ve moved on to a different place and time. Even more impressive is how the two present intense action scenes in a manner you can actually follow. Take note editors of all those overcut superhero cacophonies.
I only wish I could have seen the film in both its IMAX and epic 70mm versions to get the full impact of the many aerial dogfights Farrier and Collins thrillingly engage in — all shot by masterful director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema (“The Fighter”) from the pilot’s eye view.
Take that “Star Wars.” Yet for all the technical marvels “Dunkirk” achieves (look for it to clean up at the Oscars, especially in the special effects categories), it’s the human stories that ground it. Amazingly, this is done with an absolute minimum of dialogue, which is OK since the heavy British accents often make it hard to distinguish anyway. All you need know can be read clearly in the eyes of the talented, but largely unknown cast. The fear and confusion they show is palpable enough to send shivers. Just don’t expect much in the way of character development. For Nolan, it’s the entire rescue that’s the star.
Among the human standouts is teen heartthrob Harry Styles (of One Direction fame), who dazzles as a fellow grunt Tommy befriends on his arduous journey home. The kid is a real find, perfectly nailing it in the film’s final scenes when the realization of what he and his hundreds of thousands of compatriots just went through finally sinks in. Kudos also go to Nolan regular Cillian Murphy, outstanding as a shell-shocked soldier plucked from a sinking ship and none too happy to learn that the vessel rescuing him is piloted by Mr. Dawson and his teenage son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), who — like brave firefighters — are rushing toward danger as everyone else is making a run for safety.
Of all the film’s terrific performances, the one I think stands out is by Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton, the big brass with the unenviable task of taking responsibility of getting everyone off Dunkirk with a minimum of casualties. Not only does he diligently project the stiff-upper-lip resolve we associate with great leaders, he also allows us to see his deep compassion for his men in spite of the gravity of the enormous task at hand. Nolan clearly likes him, too; always projecting him in an angelic light. But then, he does the same for all involved, movingly reminding us that you don’t need to win the battle to be a hero. Sometimes, like Dunkirk, it’s enough just to survive.
Cast includes Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy and Harry Styles.
(PG-13 for intense war experiences and some language.)