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There Is Victory in Survival: Review of “Dunkirk”

There Is Victory in Survival: Review of “Dunkirk”

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Review by Wes O’Donnell, Managing Editor InMilitary.com. Veteran U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force.

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There Is Victory in Survival. 5 Stars

By now, we should be very familiar with Christopher Nolan’s obsession with time. Beyond using time as an instrument to guide the intensity of his movie plots, he incorporates it into nearly every nook and cranny of 70mm screen space. From “Memento” to “Inception” and “The Prestige” to “Interstellar,” time is always present.

“Dunkirk” is no different. The defense and evacuation of 400,000 British and French troops from Europe from May to June 1940, before the Americans joined the fight, is one of World War II’s great victories. It’s almost as if you could hear the stopwatch ticking down for the Allied troops as the Germans began to close in. In fact, the film’s composer Hans Zimmer sampled Nolan’s wristwatch to add a “tick, tick, tick” to the score.

Perhaps the finest commendation I can give to Nolan’s inaugural war movie is that it filled me, the viewer, with a sense of urgency and immediacy; it’s as if his relatively brief running time of 107 minutes was all these young men had to escape death or capture at the hands of the Nazis. The director’s brutal efficiency and obsession with time means that not a second on screen is wasted.

Newcomer Fionn Whitehead. Courtesy Warner Bros.

“Dunkirk” is a movie by a filmmaker in his prime and in full command of his craft.

Forget the heroic talk common to war films, the “once more unto the breach, dear friends.” “Dunkirk” is light on dialogue and spoken exposition. Instead, the film grips you by the jugular and thrusts you into the desperate fight for survival with incredible cinematography by “Interstellar” veteran Hoyte Van Hoytema. And it pays off beautifully with both stunning wide-angle vistas of the French coast and intimate close-ups of the extremely well-acted cast.

Christopher Orr, writing for The Atlantic, states that the film is “epic yet intimate; Nolan’s new war film is boldly experimental and visually stunning.” It’s experimental, perhaps, because there are hardly 100 words spoken throughout the entire film. Visually, Nolan stated that the film is intended to be viewed in 70mm. His wish to remove the screen as a barrier between the audience and the war was wildly successful.

On acting, the ensemble cast is at the top of their game. Special mention goes to newcomer Fionn Whitehead as a young British private who bookends the film. The fear in his eyes is tough to fake, even with the most accomplished and experienced Hollywood actors. As a result, he is utterly and comprehensively believable as a scared young soldier desperate to get home.

But he’s not alone; One Direction’s Harry Styles makes his acting debut in a surprisingly great outing for the handsome pop star. “Dunkirk” may have just given Mr. Styles a legitimate launch pad for a Hollywood acting career. Sit up and take notice; he has real acting chops, the kind that makes the rest of us say “Dang, how can one guy be good at everything?”

Harry Styles in a breakthrough performance. Courtesy Warner Bros.

Nolan also cast two Batman villains from his Dark Knight trilogy. Tough guy Tom Hardy, formerly Bane, plays Farrier, a dashing Spitfire pilot. Irish actor Cillian Murphy, formerly Scarecrow, plays a shivering, unpredictable soldier with a substantial role in the plot.

Tom Hardy as Farrier. Courtesy Warner Bros.

My only gripe, if it can be called that, is Nolan’s previously mentioned obsession with time. Time-warping may be appropriate in such movies as the memory-twisting “Memento” or the warping of space time of “Interstellar,” but here, it was jarring.

For instance, Nolan’s Dunkirk brings together three separate threads following three separate characters: one in the air, one at sea and one on land. The movie begins and progresses in continuity, but as we watch, time becomes trickier to keep track of.

Ultimately, “Dunkirk” is a triumph. It’s a war movie without the generals pouring over maps and without a lengthy buildup of characters and geography. It’s a war movie without exposition, throwing the viewer directly into conflict with the young Allied soldiers. Less like Steven Spielberg’s ”Saving Private Ryan” and more like Terrance Malik’s ”The Thin Red Line,” it’s not about dialogue or heroics; it’s about instinct.

“Dunkirk” is a powerful experiment and as such, it is a resounding success.

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