Movie Review: Dunkirk

Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Running Time 1 Hr., 47 Mins., PG-13

My Rating: A-

Christopher Nolan’s World War II epic “Dunkirk” (2017) is colossal and expansive, reminiscent of other atmospherically boundless genre classics like “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) or “Apocalypse Now” (1979). Yet it is also intimate and interminably raw, a piece of naked flesh exposed to the cold.

While we watch “Dunkirk,” we discover that the spectacle of war is not necessarily its defining characteristic. The real spectacle is more often found in the faces of the men embroiled in the central conflict, and in Hans Zimmer’s frantic score, which aurally imitates the ticking of a time bomb.

Because in “Dunkirk,” we’re imprisoned in a claustrophobic world wherein every probable chance at freedom gives way to quicksand. The faces of the men who live through that reality, forever anguished and intermittently covered in saltwater, sand, or oil, summarize that dire truth.

The movie, of course, covers the notorious Dunkirk evacuation of 1940. Amidst a relentless deluge of bullets and bombs, we watch helplessly as British, French, Belgian, and Canadian troops — totaling in about 400,000 — try to break free from the French commune on which they’ve been trapped by the German army.

No absolute heroes inhabit “Dunkirk”. There is no Audie Murphy type, swooping in to save the day. Uncertainty, and cynicism prevail. Even when deliverance does come, we don’t exactly sigh a breath of relief. Judging from our leading character’s (Fionn Whitehead) dirtied, numbed face as he departs on a crowded train at the film’s end, sitting across from a fellow soldier who lacks his sensitivity, he will not return home able to wallow in youthful optimism as he might have before.

For Nolan, Dunkirk prolongs his fondness for manipulating time (see 2000’s “Memento” or 2010’s “Inception”) but otherwise invigorates his habitual Kubrickian ambition. His most recent film, the divisive Interstellar (2014), worked with possibly the most fantastical setting of them all: outer space.

But “Dunkirk,” in spite of its monolithic staging, sees him coming back down to Earth. Here, Nolan is less infatuated with his own intellectual ideas and is more intent on bringing a humanistic edge to an event we’ve clinically read about but never exactly felt. The movie only underlines the proclamations that Nolan is one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation. Wading into the waters of an unfamiliar genre and still managing to conquer it, with emotional nuance to boot, Nolan emphasizes that, like Scorsese or Spielberg, there isn’t anything he can’t do.

“Dunkirk’s” utmost strength, though, is tangible sense of loss. We might only experience this conflict through the eyes of a few. But this movie violently unravels in its facility to affect us.

We can imagine the aftermaths lived by some of these men upon their walking back into their lives at home. We can envision their inability to not be taunted by the previous traumas, the lights that go out in their hearts. The inexorably unhappy marriages that might someday come. That the “Dunkirk” catastrophe took place at the beginning of the war magnifies its waste. So many more lives would be lost and destroyed, but at what cost?

A student at the University of Washington, Blake will major in Visual Communications or Journalism.  petersonreviews.com

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