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Dunkirk 

'Dunkirk' is an instant classic war film

Writer-director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar) helms this historical drama about the World War II evacuation of Dunkirk, when allied forces from Belgium, the British Empire, Canada, and France were surrounded by the German army between May 26 to June 4, 1940. Civilians in fishing, merchant marine, and pleasure boats valiantly came to their rescue. (106 min.)

click to enlarge LAND We watch as Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) desperately tries to get off the beach at Dunkirk and on a boat home. - PHOTO COURTESY OF WARNER BROS. PICTURES
  • Photo Courtesy Of Warner Bros. Pictures
  • LAND We watch as Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) desperately tries to get off the beach at Dunkirk and on a boat home.

Glen Nolan wastes no time dropping you into the action, though he begins his film deceptively with a group of soldiers walking nonchalantly through a seemingly deserted village. You see one man finding a few drops of water from a coiled garden hose with no water pressure, another finding a cigarette butt in an ashtray through an open window. There's no dialogue, just some boys trying to find their way to the rear of the combat theater. Then shots ring out and they're scrambling. The camera follows one in particular, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), who eventually finds the beach where other Brits and Frenchmen are awaiting evacuation. Later we cut to Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) as he prepares his pleasure craft to travel to Dunkirk as part of the civilian evacuation flotilla, accompanied by his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and local 17-year-old boy, George (Barry Keoghan), who promises to be "useful." They're part of the extraordinary group of civilians who helped evacuate some of the 300,000 soldiers saved from Dunkirk. Finally we're in the cockpit with Farrier (Tom Hardy), who with two other pilots is tasked with flying to Dunkirk to help the evacuating soldiers with air support, dog fighting with enemy aircraft trying to bomb and strafe fleeing boats. Throughout the film, we revisit these three situations—land, sea, and air—each telling their small, personal stories in service to the whole, like individual pieces of a mosaic that compose a masterpiece, which I would argue Nolan has created. It's a masterful depiction of war from the perspectives of those who were there, and it's frightening and terrible to behold.

click to enlarge SEA Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) is one of many civilians who sailed into danger to rescue stranded soldiers who were surrounded by the German army. - PHOTO COURTESY OF WARNER BROS. PICTURES
  • Photo Courtesy Of Warner Bros. Pictures
  • SEA Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) is one of many civilians who sailed into danger to rescue stranded soldiers who were surrounded by the German army.

Anna The beach is a torturous purgatory for the soldiers, home almost within sight across the water and enemies picking them off while they wait for boats to arrive to save them. Nolan's brilliant interweaving of each person's own intense journey is paired with an incredible score by Hans Zimmer; the combination makes every moment of the film feel important, big or small. Nolan doesn't overindulge in gore, though death and danger invade the beach like an incoming tide. Every time a destroyer is filled to the brim with soldiers desperate to get home, an air attack or torpedo sinks the giant ships, along with many lives and many hopes of ever seeing home again. I felt my own desperation and fevered panic rising as hope after hope is dashed, especially for Tommy and the young group of soldiers he has allied himself with; they cannot catch a break and soon start to turn against each other. Each individual storyline has its own desperate struggles, and the way they are woven together leads to a brilliant and tear-jerking end. I agree with your assessment of the film as a masterpiece. Nolan hit it out of the park with Dunkirk.

Glen I'm glad you mentioned Zimmer's score. For me, this score ranks up there with the best Bernard Herrmann scores like those from Hitchcock's Psycho and Vertigo. It adds such intensity to the scenes. I thought the casting was especially good too. Aside from Hardy and Rylance, the only other actors I was familiar with were Harry Styles as Alex, James D'Arcy as Col. Winnant, and Kenneth Branagh as Cmdr. Bolton—most of these faces are unfamiliar, and bouncing from story to story, often not getting names, added to the realism. These were the faces of war—interchangeable pawns, fodder for gunfire. One other recognizable actor was Cillian Murphy, cast as the "Shivering Soldier." He's rescued from a foundering ship by Mr. Dawson, Peter, and George. Shell shocked and desperate to return home, he's angrily aghast that they're sailing back toward Dunkirk. What happens on that boat drives home the randomness of war, how it arbitrarily takes one man and not another. We also learn what drives Mr. Dawson, and so many others like him over those nine terrible days, to turn toward the danger, if only to save one more man—someone's brother, son, or father. This film will rank up there with Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now, Black Hawk Down, and Full Metal Jacket as modern masterpieces.

click to enlarge AIR Farrier (Tom Hardy) must balance a dwindling fuel supply with his duty to fight off enemy aircraft picking off Allied forces like sitting ducks. - PHOTO COURTESY OF WARNER BROS. PICTURES
  • Photo Courtesy Of Warner Bros. Pictures
  • AIR Farrier (Tom Hardy) must balance a dwindling fuel supply with his duty to fight off enemy aircraft picking off Allied forces like sitting ducks.

Anna I read that Hardy actually had less than 10 minutes of screen time in Dunkirk yet is the anchor for the portion of the film that takes place in the air. In less than 10 minutes, he becomes one of the principal heroes in the film. That's pretty adept filmmaking if you ask me, especially considering his only lines are between himself and his two other pilots, and are minimal. I especially fell for the character of Mr. Dawson, a man who feels fear and accepts it and whose principled beliefs lead him to help, even if the path puts him and his son in danger. I personally think the moments spent on that small boat were some of the best in the film—a small situation standing alongside a much bigger one, and Mr. Dawson's determination to help has a motivation whose story unravels in a heartbreaking way. Frankly, I walked out of the theater blown away by this film. Adeptly making both a war film and a film about individual lives is tricky, but Nolan's method of interweaving stories of land, sea, and air is a perfect solution. His filmmaking along with Zimmer's masterful scoring is a collaboration I hope to see again. That pairing along with some serious acting chops from the cast won me over with Dunkirk.

Split Screen is written by Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and his wife, Anna. Comment at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.


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