“DUNKIRK” (2017) Review

“DUNKIRK” (2017) Review

Looking back the World War II drama called “DUNKIRK”, I realized that I had made a few assumptions about it. One of those assumptions was that the movie would be a call back to those old war epics of the 1960s and 1970s that featured a running time between two to three hours long and an all-star cast. I was proved right … on one matter.

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, “DUNKIRK” is about simply about one thing … the British Expeditionary Force (BEF)’s evacuation from Dunkirk, France. The BEF, along with the French Army had been forced to retreat to the city next to the English Channel in early June 1949, after failing to halt the German Army invasion of France. Although British, French and other European forces found themselves trapped at Dunkirk, Nolan’s movie mainly focused on the British troops awaiting evacuation.

Nolan wanted to convey the evacuation from three perspectives:

*the beach (“The Mole”)
*the English Channel (“The Sea”)
*aerial combat (“The Air”)

“The Mole” focused upon the efforts of a young British soldier named Tommy to survive as long as he could and get himself evacuated from Dunkirk as soon as possible. Tommy is eventually joined by a silent soldier who called himself “Gibson”, another soldier called Alex and a group of Scottish soldiers who make several attempts – using a wounded soldier, a ship that ends up being torpedoed by a German U-boat, and a Dutch trawler – to escape the beach in front of Dunkirk over a period of a week.

“The Sea” featured the experiences of a Mr. Dawson of Weymouth, England; along with his son Peter and the latter’s best friend George Mills as part of an armada of British civilian boats sent across the English Channel to help evacuate the trapped at Dunkirk. The experiences of the Moonstone’s crew, which takes place over a period of a day, included the journey across the Channel; their rescue of a shell-shocked Army officer, who was the sole survivor of a wrecked ship; an unexpected and tragic mishap between the officer and George; and the crew’s rescue of a downed R.A.F. pilot named Collins.

“The Air” followed the experiences of Collins, his fellow pilot Farrier and their leader, “Fortis Leader”. Due to the amount of fuel in their Spitfire fighter planes, the trio only have an hour to protect the evacuating troops from the Luftwaffe. “Fortis Leader” is immediately shot down during a dogfight. During the same fight, Farrier assumes command and his fuel gage is shattered. But when Collins is shot down during another dogfight, Farrier is left alone to protect the evacuating troops from the air … using a reserve tank of gas.

Another assumption I had formed before seeing this film was that the story was told in chronological order. Only I had failed to pay attention to the three different time spans that Nolan had conveyed at the beginning of each segment. So, after watching Mr. Dawson and his small crew rescue the shell-shocked officer, I was taken aback at the sight of the same officer preventing Tommy, Gibson and Alex from boarding his doomed ship from the mole (a long pier) later in the film. It was my sister who reminded me of the time differences of each segment. In other words, from their perspective, Tommy and his fellow evacuees had met the officer (who was far from shell-shocked at the time) later in the week they had spent on the French beach. From Mr. Dawson’s perspective, Peter and George had rescued the officer not long after their departure from England.

A part of me wondered if utilizing this non-linear narrative to tell this story was really necessary. Then it occurred to me … it is only natural that soldiers like Tommy would spend at least a week trapped on the beach. It was natural that the crew of the Moonstone would spend only a day traveling between England and France, across the Channel. And it was especially natural that pilots like Farrier and Collins would only spend at least an hour in the air, considering that they were limited by their fuel supply. And if Nolan had told his story in a rigid linear manner, he would have lacked enough time to focus on “The Sea” and “The Air”segments. Looking back on how Nolan handled the time span of his story, I found it very clever. More importantly, a sense of urgency seemed to increase as the three segments eventually converged near the end of the movie.

I also noticed that “DUNKIRK” had a running time of 106 minutes. This is completely different from other World War II dramas with an all-star cast. And yet, I was not even aware of this shorter running time. I became so engrossed in the film that I barely noticed how long or short it was. And if I must be frank, I am rather glad that the movie only ran less than two hours. I do not think I could have handled more than two hours of that film. It was so damn tense … and nerve wracking. The movie featured so many interesting and tense scenes.

Among those scenes include Flight Officer Collins being shot down over the English Channel and his efforts to free himself from his damaged Spitfire before he can drown. Another scene that nearly had me biting my nails featured Tommy, “Gibson” and Alex trying to escape a damaged ship after it had been torpedoed. A real nail biter proved to be the rescued shell-shocked officer’s encounter with the crew of the Moonstone. I found that sequence both tense and tragic. Ironically, the three most tension-filled scenes occurred in the movie’s last twenty to thirty minutes. One of those scene featured Tommy’s efforts to defend “Gibson”, who had revealed himself as a French soldier, from Alex and a group of Scottish troops inside a damaged Dutch trawler under fire by German troopers. I also found Farrier’s last dogfight against a German fighter rather tense to watch. Ironically, this dogfight led to another tense scene featuring Tommy and the other soldiers, as they try to reach a minesweeper and later, the Moonstone amidst burning fuel from the Messerschmitt shot down by Farrier.

There are other aspects of “DUNKIRK” that I admire. One of them turned out to be Hoyte van Hoytema’s photography, as shown in the images below:

I thought his cinematography was absolutely spectacular. And I hope that van Hoytema will receive an Oscar nomination for his work. I was also impressed by Lee Smith’s editing. Between Nolan’s direction and Smith’s editing, the movie marched at a pace that really impressed me … especially the scenes mentioned in the previous paragraph. Nathan Crowley is another I believe should be considered for an Oscar nomination. As the film’s production designer, I thought he did an excellent job in re-creating wartime Northern France and Southwestern England, circa 1940. Jeffrey Kurland did a solid job in creating costumes that reflected both the film’s characters and settings. But they did not particularly blow my mind. As for Hans Zimmer’s score, I found it … okay, I simply do not recall it. What can I say?

I found the performances featured in “DUNKIRK” very admirable. The movie featured solid performances from Kenneth Branaugh and James D’Arcy, who seemed to have formed a pretty good screen team as a pair of British senior officers awaiting evacuation. Mark Rylance gave an admirable performance as the patient, yet commanding Mr. Dawson, owner of the Moonstone. Aneurin Barnard managed to effectively convey the emotions of the French soldier “Gibson” with barely a line or two. Jack Lowden was very effective as the strong-willed Flight Officer Collins. I could also say the same about Barry Keoghan’s performance as Peter Dawson’s eager friend George Mills, who volunteered to accompany the Dawsons to Dunkirk.

But one of the performances that truly impressed me came from Harry Styles as the belligerent soldier Alex, who did a great job of expressing his character’s willingness to cross the moral line for the sake of survival. I also enjoyed Tom Glynn-Carney’s portrayal of the growing maturity of Mr. Dawson’s son, Peter. Cillian Murphy gave a superb performance as the shell-shocked Army officer whom the Moonstone crew rescues from a sinking ship. Tom Hardy seemed to have even less lines than Aneurin Barnard. But with very little lines and a great deal of facial expressions, he was marvelous as the R.A.F. pilot Farrier, whose seemed determined to protect the evacuating troops as long as possible within a space of an hour. The role of the everyman soldier, Tommy, proved to be Fionn Whitehead’s third or fourth role in his career. Yet, this barely 20-something kid did a superb job in carrying most of “The Mole” segment on his shoulders. With a few lines and some great silent acting, Whitehead managed to convey Tommy’s growing desperation to escape the Dunkirk beach … but with his moral compass intact.

I do have one complaint about “DUNKIRK”. Although I realized that “DUNKIRK” was basically about the evacuation of the BEF, a part of me wish that Nolan had did more to set it up. Nolan flashed a brief paragraph about Allies’ retreat to Dunkirk before starting the film. I did not expect the director to go into details about the events that led to the retreat. But damn! He could have spared more than one measly paragraph.

Otherwise, I was very impressed with “DUNKIRK”. Very impressed. Despite my fears that it would prove to be another one of those two-to-three hour World War II epics with a cast of thousands, the movie proved to be something different. Nolan took the World War II epic trope and nearly turned it on its ears with a smaller running time and a non-linear narrative that emphasized the importance of time. It also featured a superb cast led by the likes of Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance. Is it the best World War II movie I have seen? I cannot answer that question for it would be subjective. But it may prove to be one of my favorites.

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