Dunkirk ***1/2

Christopher Nolan is in expert form in this dramatization of the important WWII battle.  

Is it worth $10? Yes 

Dunkirk, France, 1940. Roughly 400,000 Allied soldiers are trapped on the beach of this northern enclave, surrounded and dominated by German firepower. The only hope for survival is evacuation, and that becomes less likely by the hour.

In a Hollywood story, these underdog Allies would fight their way out. But writer/director Christopher Nolan (the “Dark Knight” trilogy) isn’t interested in a Hollywood story. Instead, “Dunkirk” focuses on the sometimes heroic, sometimes selfish, and always-brave actions of individuals on land, at sea and in the air, and how each contributed to the evacuation of more than 330,000 men.

The film is one-dimensional, but it’s within these confines that Nolan finds its heart. There are three storylines: One covers the course of a week and takes place on land, as soldiers (Fionn Whitehead, singer Harry Styles and more) try to survive and their commander (Kenneth Branagh) tries to get them on ships and away from the beach. The second storyline takes place over one day at sea, as ships try to evade German bomber planes and British civilians (including one played by Oscar winner Mark Rylance) cross the channel to help the evacuation. The third storyline takes place over the course of an hour as fighter pilots (headed by Tom Hardy) try to keep the men below them safe.

In uniting the triptych with a common goal and theme, Nolan keeps the audience focused with gripping filmmaking. The editing is brisk; a normal Nolan film runs two and a half hours, and this one clocks in at an hour and 45 minutes. Part of the reason is it’s not traditional. Rather than an exposition setting the stage before the plot kicks in, Nolan opens with soldiers walking through the town of Dunkirk, and then running because they’re under attack. Just like that, we’re in the middle of the action.

Another reason we become so immersed is because we can’t help it. Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema shot the film with IMAX cameras, meaning everything we see is meant for a large screen, from the cockpits of the spitfire planes to underneath the boats to long lines of men waiting to escape. In one scene, as a German plane attacks Allied soldiers lay on the ground and cover their heads. We see the bombs hit: First impacting the water, then the beach, culminating in an explosion mere feet from our hero (Whitehead) that sends his comrades flying. It’s a breathtaking sequence.

Hans Zimmer’s tense, urgent score punctuates the action and close calls, and there are many. The sound effects are also noticeable, if for no other reason than because at my screening the bass was so loud the seats were literally shaking at the sound of gunfire. It’s one thing to see the action; to feel it as well makes it enthralling.

Finally, “Dunkirk” feels palpable because it was shot on (at least some) of the locations of the actual events. When combined with the fact that Nolan eschews CGI for more practical effects (meaning he shoots as much as he can on set and doesn’t rely on computers to create half his movie <coughing> Michael Bay), there’s a totality to the film that feels primitive and tangible.

We’re used to Nolan making daring and ambitious films (“Interstellar”), and though it’s different in scale, “Dunkirk” certainly has his stamp on it. See it on as big a screen as you can.

Did you know?
Winston Churchill gave his famous “we shall fight” speech after the evacuation, but cautioned that it should not be looked upon as a victory. 

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