British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, during a speech to the House of Commons in June of 1940 in the opening months of World War II, famously said, “Our policy is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us.”
Inspired by Churchill’s timeless words, filmmaker Christopher Nolan utilizes that same exact three-pronged approach as the framework around which his new World War II film, Dunkirk, is structured. The movie plays out via three distinctly separate stories, each operating within a different time frame: one based on land and taking course over a week’s time, another taking place at sea over an entire day, and the third occurring in the air within the span of a single hour.
This unconventional format is initially a bit disorienting as Nolan and his filmmaking team, including longtime editing partner Lee Smith, mash all three timelines together within Nolan’s shortest runtime to date. But as things progress, we begin to recognize the different levels of intensity he gets from his triptych approach. The result is a triumphant feat of heart-pounding filmmaking that plunges us deep into the middle of war action and brings a refreshing unconventionality to the war movie genre in a way we’ve never before experienced. Dunkirk is not so much a battlefield drama as it is ticking-clock thriller with the highest of consequences at stake.
The film provides very little insight into what is going on and there’s even less dialogue to orient viewers to a particular point in the action. In fact, any dialogue there is gets either drowned out by the din of battle chaos or becomes lost in the lilt of English colloquialism. It really doesn’t matter though, as we soon learn that all hell has broken out on the French mainland with the Germans having pushed the European allies to the country’s western shores in Dunkirk, France, a scant 30 or so miles across the channel from the British mainland. With her soldiers’ backs to the sea, the British government summons all non-military boats, skiffs, trawlers, and any seaworthy vessel to Dunkirk to help with the evacuation.
In the “land” portion of the story, we meet a baby-faced soldier named Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead), wide-eyed from the horrors of war, who finds his way to the beaches of Dunkirk where 300,000+ of his fellow fighters await evacuation on troop ships unable to reach them. Meanwhile, military officers led by Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) hope for a miracle as time runs out. Their desperation is never more evident than when seemingly nearly every boat they pile into gets immediately sunk by torpedoes or dive bombers.
As the Germans pound and strafe the “mole” (a kilometer-long breakwater jetty) with bombs and machine gun fire, a small armada of civilian crafts sets out for England on the short journey to the besieged French city across the channel. One particular craft -- a small pleasure yacht -- is helmed by an opportunistic man named Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his two sons Peter and George. Along their treacherous day-long journey through choppy seas, they pick up a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) and a downed fighter pilot left adrift in the sea. The gravity of the situation and the horrors of war ramp up as they get closer and closer to Dunkirk. “There’s no hiding from this, son,” Dawson quips as his two young boys shudder at the sights of the approaching battle.
In the “air” part of the story, we follow the hour-long flight of two RAF Spitfire fighter pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) patrolling the skies over the English Channel. Blisteringly intense dogfights ensue as the pilots engage the enemy in a dangerous game of aerial cat and mouse.
Nolan’s decision to avoid the use of soul-sucking CGI in favor of practical effects and on-location sets (including filming on the beaches of Dunkirk where the evacuation actually took place), pays off grandly with an unsettlingly visceral texture and sense of place that pulls us directly into the action. He pushes the envelope of aerial combat footage by utilizing iMax and 65mm cameras mounted directly inside vintage fighter cockpits. The result is some of the most thrilling aerial combat footage you’ll ever see. We get a point-of-view seat as we settle our crosshairs over the Stuka dive-bombers and strafing ME-109s and pull the trigger to unleash an unholy hell of machine gun fire. These are real people, real planes, and actual explosions. Loud explosions. The difference is certainly noticeable and greatly appreciated.
Venture out by air, land, or sea to catch Dunkirk in the iMax format. It’s well worth the money and frankly, the only way to experience it.
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated “PG-13” for intense war experience and some language.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.