We will fight them in the Multiplexes
Dunkirk (2017): 10 out of 10: Dunkirk is a taut arty recreation of Operation Dynamo that took place between May 26th and June 4th, 1940 where Britain managed to rescue about 400,000 of their own and allied troops that were encircled by the Germans and trapped on a sliver of land on the coast.
The operation is famous for its use of civilian craft and the sheer number rescued after the humiliating defeat on the mainland. It inspired newly elected Prime Minister Winston Churchill to make his “we shall fight on the beaches” speech.
The Good: Christopher Nolan has shown himself a brilliant director since “Following” in 1998, but he simply has never been as on top of his game as he is in Dunkirk. Nolan uses what could easily be a gimmick, an anachronic order of three separate timelines told simultaneously. I usually dislike movies that are not told in simple chronological order, but it works brilliantly here, fitting both the material and the stories told within.
The movie is also a wonderfully minimalist affair with music used sparingly to create a great effect when it does appear and a taut running time that bluntly is a relief. Too often both war epics, recent Christopher Nolan films (I am looking your way Interstellar) and “important movies” in general seem to pad the running time to a kidney-busting three hours packing every piece of flotsam and jetsam surrounding the main story hoping something sticks with the audience.
The acting and cinematography are also top-notch. The air combat scenes filmed with real fighter aircraft of the era are a sight to behold and simply a triumph.
The Bad: While the anachronic order certainly does work brilliantly upon reflection of the entire film, one can find it disorienting during the actual viewing if one does not expect it going in.
Nolan does an incredible job recreating the period using actual ships that were at the evacuation and filming on the actual beach. However, his refusal to use CGI does create a city of Dunkirk that is remarkably intact compared to the actual city of that day and a beach that is not strewn with the hundreds of tanks and thousands of vehicles the British and French abandoned. While that is certainly excusable as an artistic choice, the modern seat patterns on the train are a surprising anachronism.
In Conclusion: As the son of a man who survived the blitz and a grandson of a Royal Navy officer, I am certain my tearing eyes and warm feeling during the film will not be shared by all. It is, however, even for those with no personal connection, a brilliant combination of direction, cinematography, and music that is a filmmaking triumph. One of the best films I have seen this year.