DUNKIRK review by Rahul Vedantam – Christopher Nolan delivers an impressive war epic

DUNKIRK review by Rahul Vedantam – Christopher Nolan delivers an impressive war epic

There has never been a movie that more deserves viewing in IMAX than DUNKIRK. That might have been said of Christopher Nolan’s last spectacle film INTERSTELLAR had it not been so singular in its vision of telling the power of love, but DUNKIRK brings three stories to the table. Each story takes place at different times before the final evacuation converging at the end, and tells different tales of bravery, fear, and survival. And while there is somehow more time hopping in DUNKIRK than INTERSTELLAR, the movie focuses on conveying those emotions with every moment of screen time.

Normally I’d discuss the general plot structure here, but there is a star in the film that deserves accolades before anyone else… it’s score. Once again a Hans Zimmer creation, fans will likely be surprised with the direction taken for the film. Taking the place of epic fanfares of INTERSTELLAR, INCEPTION, or PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN that he is so known for, we get heartbeats. Being it the drums, high tense horror movie-like strings, or trombones and French horns sounding off on each other like a siren, everything is just loud, thumping, in your face, quarter note heartbeats. And it doesn’t stop. Throughout the film you expect an eventual sense of relief after one dramatic event has played out… but the music doesn’t stop, just as the fear of dying hasn’t stopped even if you survived one boat sinking, because as long as you are still on that beach your life is in danger. Unlike Zimmer’s other work there will not be as many people buying the soundtrack to listen to at home, but the IMAX theater has nearly every scene reverberating into my chest.

There will no doubt be SAVING PRIVATE RYAN comparisons drawn towards the film. Both are hyper realistic World War II films focused on survival. But there is a difference in the tone and scope of the films. SAVING PRIVATE RYAN focuses on showing the horror of war through a single party of characters, while DUNKIRK shows the desperation and miracles of human accomplishment in times of strife. The film is also broader in scope, giving the tone of the whole army instead of just a particular group. It follows 3 people mainly, and infantry man trying to get off the beach, a pilot being one of very few asked to protect the beach, and a father taking his boat across the English Channel himself after the Navy began its requisition of luxury boats in England for the evacuation. Fionn Whitehead does a fantastic job as the main infantryman being followed, and has to carry the weight of being lead of the movie as the infantry get the most screen time. Each time the Nazi bomber planes fly overhead, killing some and reminding everyone else of the impending doom not far away, you see both his training and his natural human fear on his face. The airplane sequences follow Farrier (Tom Hardy, who’s performance is less admirable as it is mainly military jargon and his face is covered almost the entire time) and he actions to save as many people as possible fighting in the skies. Finally, the rescue sequences focus on both Mr. Dawson and his son (Mark Rylance and Tom Glynn-Carney) as they sail across the channel picking up drowning soldiers. Men like this are part of the real miracle of Dunkirk, where 300,000 soldiers were evacuated when only 30,000 were expected to make it out.

The passage of time is easily the most jarring things about the film. DUNKIRK is constantly switching between all three of these stories, but they are all taking place at different time. This is told once at the beginning of the film with a title card saying, “one week”, “one day”, and “one hour”, and only even reinforced at the very end where some of the same scenes happen from different points of view. This wouldn’t be so bad if the film wasn’t edited to appear like they are all happening at the same time. Also the passage of time is very badly shown. It is fairly easy to assume how the rescue story catches up with the pilot story with only 23 hours of difference, but it is never shown where an entire week passes for the infantry. There is a scene where the infantry gets in a stranded, grounded boat, and from that point on we only get interior shots of the boat. The next time we see them, they are in the middle of the channel jumping overboard into it. There are a few mentions of a high tide coming before they every get into the boat, but it is extremely jarring when they are suddenly in a completely different environment with no indication of how they got there or how much time has passed. The movie is quite a triumph in many areas, and I want to be able to look past this, but it very inexcusable to be so focused on conveying emotion to forget to give your audience any narrative indication as to what is going on.

Also, it is possible it was just my theater’s reel, but it appears like there was a second unit for the rescue team that didn’t get the memo when shooting on set. The film would keep shifting between widescreen and full screen and which was also something that was very annoying. It made it very easy to tell which scenes were shot on set and which were done with CGI as they looked completely different. Not only was the aspect ratio different but it felt like the on-set shots had an Instagram filter over them. It’s possible it was just a bad reels, but this is also something that just becomes inexcusable if you have a $150 million budget and are professionals.

Nevertheless, the film is quite an achievement of emotion. It probably has the least dialogue to minute ratio I’ve ever seen in a full feature length film. When the movie opens I thought it would be just for the opening sequence they were trying to show action and be sparse with dialogue, only to learn that was a theme for the entire movie. These are real people focused to their work, and focused on survival. Their characters develop through their actions, not their words, and the miracle of Dunkirk becomes fully realized in the stories of all the men involved.

DUNKIRK opens in theaters July 21, 2017

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