Review: Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ is a Nail-Biting Tour de Force

Christopher Nolan’s WWII epic is the first true Oscar contender of the year.

RATING: ★★★★ (out of four stars)

If your movie theater is giving out stress relief balls at Dunkirk showings, then lucky you. But if you’re like me, when I saw Dunkirk at a press screening last night, you’ll be sitting through Christopher Nolan’s WWII epic on the edge of your seat biting your nails.

Recounting Britain’s darkest hour, Dunkirk tells the story of Allied soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk waiting to be evacuated as they’re surrounded by the German army on land, air, and sea.

Dunkirk might be the most unconventional WWII movie you ever see. The narrative structure is uncommon. The movie is light on dialogue. No blood is shown on screen. The enemy lurks around from all sides, but never shows it face. Not one protagonist leads the evacuation; in fact, almost all of the characters we encounter in the movie are nameless. You might be asking yourself after reading the previous six sentences, “How do you make an epic war movie without these seemingly keen essential elements we’re so accustomed to seeing in war movies?” Leave it to acclaimed director Nolan to immerse viewers in the middle of the evacuation, where the movie’s technical aspects are masterfully crafted and are what ultimately authenticates this survival story. The results are striking and will have your heart racing until the credits roll.  

Never letting up during its entire 107 minute runtime, Dunkirk is relentless and intense; and yes, you will see that word “intense” in just about every review of Dunkirk. Whenever the movie feels like the evacuating soldiers are about to cross the finish line, Nolan throws in a twist or turn that stretches the line out even further. Nolan, who always brings an element of surprise to his movies, never once makes the viewers feel as if they’re safe in Dunkirk. Sure, viewers never come face-to-face with the enemy, but it’s always lurking somewhere close by, like an underwater shark where you only see the occasional fin protruding above the surface.

The uncertainty of the enemy’s location, combined with knowing they could pop up at any time, forces the movie’s mostly nameless heroes to come out of sheer common desperation. Like I said, there’s not one lead protagonist in Dunkirk. Instead, Nolan goes back and forth between a number of different characters in different places fighting their own battles, all of whom share one common goal – survival. Sure, there are movie stars in Dunkirk, such as Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road), Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies), Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet), Cillian Murphy (Peaky Blinders), James D’Arcy (Agent Carter), newcomer Fionn Whitehead, and popstar Harry Styles, among others. And while all of these actors do a great job, Nolan never shines a brighter spotlight on any one of their characters than the others, demonstrating that this is a collaborative effort like a puzzle where each character is a crucial piece needed for completion.

Helping keep the tension at 11 throughout Dunkirk are the movie’s technical aspects, which are sure to sweep at next year’s Oscars for just about every award you can name. The movie allows the technical aspects to tell the story rather than the dialogue. The sound mixing and editing stand out the most, where explosions and gunfire feel like you’re experiencing it live. With every precise, swift-moving cut that takes viewers to another viewpoint of the movie’s setting, Nolan keeps the audience on the edge of its seat with an enemy ready to strike at any instance from any given angle. Shot entirely in IMAX, Dunkirk begs to be seen in this larger-than-life format. If you live near one of these special screens, spend a few extra dollars and see why these theaters exist. Another astounding technical aspect in Dunkirk is film composer Hans Zimmer’s haunting score. Mostly reminiscent of a ticking clock that sporadically speeds up and slows down, Zimmer’s memorable score surely will be played on repeat by film score-listening aficionados much like Inception, another of his signature musical creations.  

Nolan’s last two movies, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, were both fine movies, but each of them was flawed and ultimately disappointing given the filmmaker’s remarkable track record. But Dunkirk is more than just a return to form for everyone’s favorite director on IMDb; Dunkirk is arguably his best movie to date and it is sure to be studied for years to come.

Tight and bare boned, Dunkirk is not only the best movie of the year so far, it also might be the best movie of 2017 when it’s all said and done. Dunkirk’s simple tale of heroism is a must-see experience, but be prepared and don’t pass out from lack of oxygen while you’re watching it. You likely will be holding your breath throughout this nail-biting tour de force.