World War II movies are pretty standard fare, as there’s been more than 70 years to crank them out and to fine tune their various approaches. However when one comes along that stands out, it doesn’t kind of stand out, it’s simply not in the same league as the other ones that have so often come along. Christopher Nolan’s latest release, Dunkirk, will wind up sitting solidly alongside Saving Private Ryan, Das Boot, and the microphone-drop of WWII epics – HBO’s Band of Brothers.
The film isn’t just another great WWII film, it’s also crafted in such a way that makes it almost singularly unique. Let’s start off with the big point – it’s a story about the British and French being pushed into the sea by the rapidly advancing German army over May and June of 1940. America hadn’t entered the war yet, and wouldn’t for more than another year. So there’s no Matthew McConaughey coming in to save the day (as was retconned into the film U-571). There’s not a single American character in the film. There’s also no real-life people in this story, these are all fictitious characters in the story. And the most significant part, and what might take a bit of the film to get sorted out – there’s three timelines in play (if you’re a fan of Inception, you’ll be used to Nolan’s general lack of regard to linear storytelling). Taking the military triad of by land, by sea, and by air – Nolan has split his story into three separate storylines each following one of those aspects, with it’s own perspective, and it’s own timeframe.
The Land, starts off 7 days before the end of the film, and takes place on the beach at Dunkirk, where 400,000 soldiers are pinned between the Germans and the sea. The Sea, about the pleasure craft Moonstone, which like all other available civilian craft has been pressed into service to help go to the aid of the stranded soldiers, has it’s own timeline of taking place one day before the end of the film. And the last segment, The Air, takes place beginning in a span of time one hour before the climax and involves a wing of three Royal Air Force Spitfire fighters who are doing their best to keep the German air forces from strafing and bombing the troops and rescue ships. All three storylines span the length of the film, but since each has such radically different timeframes, the pacing weaves in and out between them. It does come into focus how it’s being handled as things unfold and the segments begin to come together, however how long it takes any particular viewer will vary widely.
The reason that I mentioned “simple elegance” in the title of this review, is because the full two-hour film, there was probably 5-8 pages worth of scripted dialogue. It’s the action and the events that drive the story, not the characters. In most cases, I expect that most viewers won’t really bond with any of the characters in the film, but we’re not really supposed to. This is a presentation of the happenings of war, and how various perspectives have their own angles and versions of “truth” within them. Modern war films relish in blowing arms off, and blood spray galore. However that’s really not the case in Dunkirk. This film is about the tension, not about a head-shot in close up.
The film hits the ground running and never lets up. It’s paced along the same lines as Fury Road as far as – it’s really a full extended action sequence spanning nearly the full story. Nolan himself described Dunkirk not as a war film, but as a thriller. To me it felt like he succeeded in doing both.
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