By Wil Walker
Basically: Christopher Nolan’s insanely epic interpretation of Operation Dynamo—the desperate and heroic feats of the British to extract their beaten Army from the beaches of Dunkirk.
So let’s dive right in (intentional pun) this is an aquatic epic after all. This is a HUGE movie. It opens with Johnny-come-lately Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is escaping snipers in the streets of the French city. Alex (Harry Styles) is leaping from a sinking ship, frantically swimming for shore. Farrier (Tom Hardy) is airborne preparing to engage airstrikes, targeting the soldiers struggling to vacate the beach.
There’s dread. Oh my god there’s so much dread. Shell-shocked soldiers literally bounce from one near-death experience to the next in hopes of survival. Then just when you think it’s safe, BOOM! Another carrier is sunk, another air assault, another rescue boat is thwarted.
In the spirit of full transparency, I’m no expert on war movies, but this has to be one of the most mercilessly intense war films made. The unsettling attacks, the valiant-albeit ridiculous, rescue efforts and the desperation of war harmonize with uninterrupted bombings as gunfire rips through every scene. Expect to leave exhausted, thrilled, and a bit confused; unless you’re a war historian.
The cinematography is meticulously constructed with aerial shots of thousands of soldiers stranded on the beach juxtaposed with soldiers frantically waving and reaching for god-knows-what before drowning. Hanz Zimmer provides an intensely terrifying score. Brilliantly buried under combat ready beats and synthesized air raid sirens is an ominous ticking—forcing you to remember time is running out. Zimmer understood when to slam us with percussions and when to let the strings soar. Together the score and the ferocity of the sound effects frame the character’s reflective silence. There can’t be more than a twenty minutes of dialogue scattered throughout the entire film. This division, at the level of plot and character, lifts the music to the level of a protagonist.
In the end: An armada of small civilian vessels ferry soldiers from the beaches to the few surviving warships waiting at sea. Everyone will likely champion Dunkirk as an amazing movie, but like a macaroon from Ladurée—celebrated as the best in New York despite being flown in from Monaco everyday—they’ll do it simply because it’s a “Christopher Nolan” film not because it’s incredible. By the same token, Dunkirk is set to dominate awards season, but I left the theatre feeling it was more successful than victorious.