9/10 Dunkirk isn’t just a movie, it’s a sensory experience.
The film tells the story of the Miracle of Dunkirk, the 1940 British operation in which 338,226 soldiers who had been pinned down at Dunkirk beach after losing the Battle of France were evacuated. The story is told from three perspectives, all of which take place over different periods of time. On the beach, an army private named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) spends a week desperately trying to find a way back to England. On the sea, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) refuses to give up his yacht and ventures to into war himself as the Navy requisitions civilian boats for the evacuation. He spends a day crossing the English Channel, picking up stranded troops as he goes. In the skies, Royal Air Force pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) burns through his last hour of fuel furiously protecting the beach from German bombers.
In Dunkirk, time is running out. From Farrier’s fuel gauge to the constantly shrinking space on the beach to the rising water in sinking vessels, every scene in this movie is under some kind of physical pressure. It starts in the very first scene and never lets up, leaving viewers’ pulses pounding and knuckles white for its full 106 minute runtime.
It’d be accurate to say Dunkirk is almost a silent film because of its lack of dialogue, but at the same time it would be so, so far the opposite of the truth. This film is all about sound, be it ear-piercing gunfire or the harsh shriek of Stuka dive bombers. Hans Zimmer outdoes himself with a score that seems to never end. Visually, it’s absolutely stunning.
This is a movie that has to be seen in the theater. Watching it is a physical experience. It is absolutely not going to be the same on the small screen.
I’d watch just about any story play out if it had Dunkirk‘s surface-level intensity, which is a good thing because the narrative is tough to access. Writer/director/producer Christopher Nolan, notoriously tight-lipped about his projects, explained the structure in interviews in late February and early March, an uncharacteristic move that may have been because he didn’t feel like viewers would understand what was going on otherwise. With little discernable ramping up or down of the pressure, it runs into that Hurt Locker problem where the movie starts to drag, no matter how much you’re enjoying it.
It’s not exactly surprising that the director of Memento and Inception made a movie that plays with time, it’s just tough to figure out whether or not it adds to the movie. The question merits a second viewing to understand its real narrative ambitions — one I’m all too happy to give it.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.