Movies by the Minute: Dunkirk

A new series with rapid reviews about great movies

 See end of review for assessment:

A must see on the big screen,
Good show, but matinee would suffice OR
Watch movie, but wait for DVD

Dunkirk is the war movie’s war movie. Set in Dunkerque, France in 1940, it depicts the aftermath, in part, of the fall of France and the Low Countries, whereupon British and French troops find themselves surrounded by German armies, virtually sitting ducks as they await rescue from across the English Channel. With the Luftwaffe bombing the beach and water, ships and men go down by the hundreds each day.

Director, screenwriter and producer Christopher Nolan tells their story from the perspectives of sea, land and air as small, private British vessels are commandeered by the Navy to travel across the Channel, able as they are, to reach past points the larger ships cannot. As this journey is underway, we witness the three perspectives mostly via the actual experiences of the individuals living them. There is very little dialogue and the music score syncs in time to events, large and small, often acting as conduit to communication and where things are headed, and it is riveting. Between the cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema and Hans Zimmer’s score, my back never touched the cinema seat.

As the movie opens, we are already at war—there is no leading up to it. Three headers meant to give us timing information might have been better utilized with dates: “One Week” didn’t tell me if this means there is a week of enduring some plight, for example or, as I later realized, the action was happening one week before the last day of rescue, June 3.

Apart from minimal dialogue, we see very little growth of the individuals populating the film though, and it’s difficult to overstress this, there is a specific reason. Dunkirk is not about any one person and we never learn any significant background details on any of them. The picture’s spotlight is the battle itself, and Nolan spends a great deal of focus on developing events and action within that. The conflict is the main character, and viewers see it grow from a small street fight, branching out to other pockets of resistance, take on more consequence as we observe aerial shots of soldiers queuing in the water while they wait for boats, many of whom have already been bombed and torpedoed right before them, and a larger picture as the three perspectives converge with the singular aim of their goal to bring the men back to Dover.

Some movie reviewers concede the point: the battle is the focus, yet they continue to gripe about character development, and my feeling is you can’t have it both ways. Either one understands the real focus and does not downgrade the film for character growth, or they knock off a few points and leave off pretending to recognize the singular role played by the Battle of Dunkirk itself.

The cinematography and direction of Dunkirk—which includes cockpit views that turn upside down any stereotyped cliché about breathtaking aerial shots—are both set in place for Oscar 2018. While I enjoy movies as much as the next guy, it is very much not my habit to run home and write reviews about each one I watch. That I felt the inclination to share my thoughts on Dunkirk speaks volumes, and I know I will be re-visiting in thought and discussion much about Dunkirk in days, weeks and months to come. Additionally, I believe people will be talking about this film for years, because it possibly is the best war movie ever made.

Assessment: A must see on the big screen

(Also a must-own Blu Ray)

 

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