Its been about two months since Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk hit theaters. I managed to avoid all but one trailer prior to its release which was a short teaser and actually sparked my interest in the film. Up until that point I was unaware of the film’s production and was also unfamiliar with the historical facts the story is based on. As the release grew closer it became the film I was most looking forward to this summer. I have no problem saying I am a definite fan of Nolan’s work and with a few exceptions I haven’t been disappointed. Did Dunkirk measure up to the success of its siblings or did it meet the same demise of many recent summer blockbusters? Let’s find out.
WARNING: THE REMAINDER OF THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS
Begrudgingly I must first admit that I am an extremely tough critic of films. In general, I hold any artistic endeavor to a high standard [I am MUCH harder to please when it comes to music]. Additionally, this has been compounded by the enormous amount of appalling films that have been released in recent years, it’s only set my expectations higher for those I look forward to. I preface this because I came out of Dunkirk absolutely floored. Dunkirk is a good film. It is a great film. It is an amazing film. I’ll take it further, not only is Dunkirk by far the best film of 2017, it is one of the best films I have seen in my Life. Now from speaking with others and reading quite a few reviews, I have learned that not everyone felt as strongly as I about this film, which I can respect. But personally I have never seen anything like it, and it only took about 15 minutes into it before I came to this realization.
I find when I am discussing most films I tend to use phrases like “The acting was superb” and “actor/actress x’s performance brought the film to life” and etc. So let’s get this out of the way, the acting was remarkable. Every single character was flawless onscreen. From Fionne Whitehead‘s portrayal of Tommy, whom I would consider the audience surrogate, to the brave fighter pilot Ferrier who although played by Tom Hardy doesn’t have much dialogue and spends pretty much the entirety of the film with a flight helmet and mask on so we rarely see his face. It puzzled me why Hardy was chosen for this role however even with the limited dialogue and the facial obscurity Hardy still manages to convey quite a deal, a testament to his ingenuity as an actor. There is even a not too surprising brilliant performance from Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton a man of much heart and fortitude. Again incredible performances across the board. However, the true artistry is in what is not being said or narrated. It’s in the activity onscreen and in the rhythm of events as they play out. It is in the actors subtle reactions to circumstances and not just the leads but the extras as well. Every person on-screen is perfectly placed with intention and purpose. It’s honestly something you have to experience yourself to truly understand. Simply put Nolan directed the hell out of this film. His brilliance in storytelling shines here. The film flows and unfolds in this meditative way, it’s like poetry. There are large expanses in Dunkirk with minimal dialogue, sometimes none at all but even without narration the story pours out through the scenery and action. It’s a film that respects the audience and trusts that we will understand a character’s intentions and allows us to fill in the blanks ourselves. It is rare for films to do this and even more rare for one to do this so well. Dunkirk is a magnificent work of art from the opening shot to the final frame and Nolan deserves much of the credit. There are many brilliant directors who could have told this story and told it well, but only Nolan could have delivered the film with such emotion and grandeur.
Did I mention scenery? Because when it comes to cinematography and beautiful backdrops Nolan didn’t hold back. Pretty much the entire film was shot in gorgeous 70mm and this is a film that if you have the option you MUST see in 70mm. I had the good fortune of catching it twice, the other time in Cinemark XD which was also a great viewing. However, there are multiple scenes where the IMAX experience is worth the additional cost. Nolan’s eye for wide-angle panorama is just remarkable. Trust me if you have the opportunity to catch this in true IMAX do it, you won’t be disappointed.
Of course, every film has its weak spots and Dunkirk is no exception. I don’t have much to complain about however there is one pain point that should be noted. Dunkirk, in true Nolan fashion, is delivered in non-chronological order. I personally had no issues with this, and even somewhat expected it, but I do feel this could have been better conveyed to the audience so that we could be more adequately prepared to follow the storyline. The film is staged as 3 events in differing time frames, some overlapping. The only cue the audience has to this are 3 banners each appearing on the screen for very short periods [Careful if you blink you might miss one]. The banners are meant to indicate a chapter of the film and state the place and time the chapter occurs in, for example, “The Sea: One Day”. However, I don’t feel these were enough to convey this message. It took me some time before I realized we were bouncing back and forth chronologically. Knowing this now I have no problem saying that if you know someone who has not seen the film, it is something you may want to mention to them before their viewing. It’s not really a spoiler as it is presented to the audience quite early on.
Additionally, one tiny complaint I have heard is regarding the ending of the film. During the scene Whitehead’s character Tommy is narrating as closing shots flash on the screen and there is an awkward quick shot back to him before going dark. Some have said they were confused by the expression on his face and were not sure what to take away from it. I didn’t experience the same perplexity that others have mentioned however it is something that has been told to me from multiple sources so I thought it worth mentioning.
From the opening sequence, Dunkirk grabs the viewer and drags you straight into the heart of the film. It gives you no time to catch your breath or gather your bearings while you watch in awe as the cinematic beauty unfolds before your eyes and waves of emotion slam into you frame after frame after frame. In a year full of wonderful films with emotional depth and powerful ideas Dunkirk still manages to stand alone. Along with its amazing cinematography and powerful story, it carries with it a message of hope, duty, and love. Not romantic love but love of the righteous, love of the selfless, love of all that is good in humanity. It’s at the same time heartbreaking and inspiring. I will say it again this is not only the best film I have seen in 2017, but also one of the greatest films I have seen in my life. it moved me beyond words and as the credits began to roll all I could do stand and clap with praise, as did the rest of theater. It is a perfect example of the purpose of art and how it is meant to move you into feeling something, good or bad, and it is no doubt a film Nolan will be remembered for. He had already made his mark in cinema but with Dunkirk he has permanently stamped his name as one of the elite and gifted storytellers.
Dunkirk Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️