Review: Gripping ‘Dunkirk’ plunges viewers into war

Christopher Nolan’s WWII epic is an engrossing, visually masterful experience

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

“Dunkirk” is an engulfing experience. It throws viewers onto the beaches of Dunkirk, on board boats leaving the shoreline and inside planes whirring by overhead.

Director Christopher Nolan, working at the height of his craft, has fashioned a wholly enveloping WWII epic that surrounds the viewer in what feels like a full 360 degrees. If virtual reality could be this riveting, it would have taken off by now.

A constricting, frantic score from master composer Hans Zimmer heightens what is already a feverish level of tension that never lets up. He scores to a ticking clock, and that clock becomes the film’s quickening heartbeat.

Yet for all the film’s technical bravado, there’s a slight disconnect at a human, emotional level. Characters are merely faces and bodies; if they even have names, we don’t learn them until the closing credits. Perhaps that’s the point: war takes lives indiscriminately, and soldiers are often faceless young men, trotted out in huge numbers, almost anonymously, to fight for their country. Narratively speaking, however, connecting with individuals and characters helps hammer home an experience and up one’s emotional investment. It’s not that “Dunkirk” is cold, it’s just not interested in sentimentality and won’t go anywhere approaching melodrama, and the trade off is a slight detriment to the film’s overall impact.

“Dunkirk” takes place in the early days of WWII, as British and French forces were being driven to the sea by the Germans in northern France. There they waited in massive numbers, up to 400,000 of them, acting as sitting ducks as planes flew by overhead dropping bombs on the beach. Wounded soldiers were rushed to massive boats that struggled to leave dock. On the boats, soldiers on stretchers took up the same amount of space as seven standing men, so officers had to make the call which to prioritize — one man on a stretcher or seven others?

Nolan throws us into everything with little warning, cutting between three stories: one by land, one by sea and one by air. On the beach, soldiers (among them Fionn Whitehead and pop singer Harry Styles) try to board vessels to take them to safety. In the water, a British father (Mark Rylance), his son and one of his son’s friends head toward the shore to do their part to help the army, and along the way encounter a stranded soldier (Cillian Murphy) and take him in. Up above, a fighter pilot (Tom Hardy, an oxygen mask covering his face most of the time) does battle with enemy planes and gauges out the amount of fuel he has left to stay airborne.

Nolan cuts between the three stories with increasing rapidity, as Zimmer’s score continuously jacks up the air of panic. One frightening sequence places a crew full of soldiers inside a boat that’s being used as enemy target practice; another sets viewers inside the cockpit of a plane that has crashed in the ocean as it slowly fills with water.

Top directors from Spielberg (“Saving Private Ryan”) to Tarantino (“Inglourious Basterds”) to Eastwood (“Letters from Iwo Jima”) to Verhoeven (“Black Book”) have all taken on the second World War and used it to hold up a mirror to their personal styles. In terms of storytelling, Nolan’s impressionistic approach places “Dunkirk” close to Malick’s “The Thin Red Line”: It’s not about dialogue, specific characters or story arcs as much as it is about a gut level feeling, which Nolan delivers as a full body sensory explosion.

It’s an extraordinary undertaking, and Nolan delivers a spellbinding ride. Out of the depths or man-made horror, he’s created a gripping tale of human resolve.

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Twitter: @grahamorama



Rated PG-13: for intense war experience and some language

Running time: 120 minutes

Dunkirk (PG-13)