July 24, 2017 -- It takes a confident, accomplished filmmaker to make a war film like this, epic, understated, nearly bereft of dialog, no off screen narration, a huge story brought down to intimate levels. It reminds me of some Stanley Kubrick movies.
I don't use the word “film” much these days because most movies aren't shot on film, but this one is, about 75 percent of it shot on IMAX film. It is even being shown in 70mm in some places, nowhere near me, but I did get to see it today in a premium big screen auditorium with a 4K projector and a body-shaking multi-channel sound system.
The story is told from three perspectives, land, sea and air. There is a Spitfire fighter pilot, Farrier (played by Tom Hardy of “Mad Max: Fury Road”) Dawson, the captain of a private boat pressed into service for the evacuation, (Mark Rylance of “Bridge of Spies”) and a soldier, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) who barely makes it onto the beach from the city of Dunkirk and seems to be under fire everywhere he goes.
This movie is told from the perspective of people who are not in charge of the war. It is told from the perspective of people who fight, who save lives and who are just trying to survive. There are no scenes of people pushing little ships around with sticks on a big table map, no generals and admirals talking about strategy. All that is told visually, by context. The story also builds to great crescendos of suspense, also by context.
The stories are not the usual ones, either. A sailor rescued at sea is so scared he fights the crew when he learns they are headed to Dunkirk. Two soldiers pretend to be medics, hoping thereby to get to the head of the line to a boat. A pilot has to decide to stay and fight, or head back home as he runs out of fuel. A group of men desperately get into a beached boat, hoping to sail it off the beach when the tide rises, and hoping it doesn't become a death trap.
One of the first chapters in the story is called the “Mole,” which is not a Mexican food sauce, a spy or a burrowing animal, but a kind of pier reaching deep water, allowing soldiers can walk out to where they can get into deep draft boats. Much of the movie revolves around this mole. In charge of the evacuation is Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh of “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”) who seems utterly unflappable.
A range of human emotions are on display from quiet courage to very loud panic. The spare, almost documentary feel of the movie gives it an air of authenticity. This is a remarkable war film and it certainly doesn't follow the usual formulas one usually sees in this kind of film. This film rates a B.
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