Way back in 2012, I was student teaching at a middle school in Iowa, I was a social studies room for 8th graders. The classes were learning about the American Revolution and we showed them the film "The Crossing," where Jeff Daniels played George Washington, and it was about how a group of American soldiers during Christmas 1776 and told the true story of how they captured several Hessians soldiers. I remember seeing the part where Washington successfully captures the Hessian leader. In the days that followed, I remember one of my students coming up to me, disappointed. They asked me why there was a fight between Washington and the Hessian leader. I would later discuss in the class that followed that the action movies we like to watch isn't real life, and while war can be very brutal and deadly, its not the least bit exciting.
I think that's the biggest problem that war movies face, kow-towing the line between being a historical drama and a straight up action movie. I don't think any kind of war movie or military movie should feel like an action movie. I think it sets up a disservice to the memory these soldiers leave behind. I think its a huge mistake to make these video game franchises out of war, trying to turn the very role of war as some kind of sensory high. The biggest lesson war films try to teach us is that war is hell. Soldiers aren't action heroes, they are a different kind of hero. A hero that is real, authentic and honorable. So while I think "Dunkirk" is a great film. A completely mesmerizing and intoxicating experience, those expecting something along the lines of "Inception" should be warned off.
What Christopher Nolan has crafted here is a deeply human, deeply realistic take on defense and evacuation of Dunkirk in France. The film follows three stories. One take place on The Mole, the beach in Dunkirk where 300,000 British and French troops waited to get to Allied territory as the Nazi forces began to surround them. Another story follows the commandeering of private ships for the British Navy to ride those trapped troops to safety and how a normal civilian took it upon himself to make sure as many soldiers reach the safe haven. The last story takes place in the air and follows a pilot keeping the Nazi bombers away from The Mole. There is not lots of fighting or typical "battle scenes" in any of the stories. But Christopher Nolan is able to build intensity and heart-wrenching depth out of his characters and the slow burn pace at which he chooses to tell his story.
Most of all, Nolan shows us that war is Hell. When violence does break out, its a horrifying nightmare that sweeps into the souls of the characters we meet. We see it in their faces and in their emotions how much they are trying to survive. As we meet Commander Bolton, played by Kenneth Branagh and Colonel Winnant, played by James D'Arcy, they are not the typical stiff upper lip, heroic leaders. These are men who know full well that the decisions they are about to make don't include making every soldier on the beach safe, and it clear that the very thought tears them up inside. There is powerful spark of humanity etched into the entire story of "Dunkirk" and the result is harrowing.
Tom Hardy plays one of the pilots that is trying to give more time for the destroyers and private boats to pick up the soldiers on the beach. Much like with Bane in Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises," Hardy speaks through a masked speaker throughout most of the film. I think Hardy is amazing how he is able to act pretty much through his eyes. In two movies, we have seen that you can cover up half his face and he can still deliver the emotional depth of a character just as well as if we could see his entire face. Its also amazing that he is pretty much in a claustrophobic state, sitting inside a cramped fighter plane, for his entire appearance in the film. He does outstanding work here, and as always, has some of the highlights of the film at his disposal.
Mark Rylance plays a different kind of hero in this movie. He's not a soldier. He isn't a participant of the Royal Navy. He is just a man who chooses to do some good during a time of great upheaval. Under the discourse of the Navy, Rylance takes his own boat out to sea to help in the evacuation effort. He doesn't allow the Navy to take his boat because he doesn't want any more young kids putting themselves in harms way. He is fully capable of putting matters in his own hands for the greater good. He believes that if can give his sons the blessing of fighting in the war, then he can participate in the effort. One of the first people he rescues is a soldier played by Nolan regular Cillian Murphy. Murphy plays a soldier who is really suffering the mental breakdown of war, and how Rylance chooses to care for this soldier creates some of the best and most provocative drama in the whole film and the choices made during this segment of the film were rewarding at each turn.
Some of the best acting came from the story on the beach. We follow Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he gets out of the city of Dunkirk and tries to get off the beach, time and time again, as the boats and beach continue get ravaged by the Nazi forces. He meets various troops and helps them out in their needs. He befriends a private played by Harry Styles...yes THE Harry Styles. Harry Styles disappears in his role as the private and there is no typical singer charm in his acting, apparently he beat out hundreds of other actors for the role and I firmly believe it. He's got some real strength as a performer and this is definitely something he could do long term.
I don't want to over-hype anything here, because I don't think that Nolan is quite on the level of Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick or even Steven Speilberg yet. But I think he's getting pretty close. I will firmly say that Christopher Nolan is one of the best modern filmmakers in the business right now. "Dunkirk" is another masterwork from the director, which is further cementing his legacy in the world of Hollywood.
FINAL GRADE: A