★★★★ / ★★★★
Those expecting character, or characters, to latch onto, to understand, to care for, are setting themselves up for disappointment because writer-director Christopher Nolan is more interested in the motion of chess pieces across the board than he is at psychoanalysis in “Dunkirk,” one of the most efficient and beautifully photographed war films in recent memory. Every minute serves a purpose with the ominous score looming above and between the horrific evacuation of four hundred thousand Allied soldiers from the titular beach where tides change every three interminable hours.
Tension builds in a consistent manner despite the viewer not knowing the names of soldiers and civilians the story follows. Survival is the central motivation of every person on screen and it is the only element required to create a sense of urgency. Precise with lingering shots of hollowed and pallid soldiers during heavy silences and agile camera work when action and barrage of noise move toward the spotlight, a mesmerizing rhythm is established as the project dives in deep to underline the disasters of this particular evacuation and goes up eventually for a breath of air, of hope, but only for a fleeting moment. Nolan’s laser focus in telling the story equals that of his unique vision for the material.
Perhaps the most impressive chunks of the picture are those that contain no standard dialogue. Pay close attention to the opening scene, for example, as hurried footsteps, rapid breathing, and bullets ricocheting do the talking. Meanwhile, the veteran writer-director ensures to capture the eyes of the target (Fionn Whitehead), who looks more like a boy than a man, as desperation turns to hope and back again. Clearly, with this particular story being told in such a specific way, making room for classic or expected character development would only impede the momentum of the material. Nolan is correct to strip it away for what he intends to deliver is a visceral experience.
Despite images detailing the horrors of war, they are not without astounding beauty. Aerial shots of endless lines and rows of men in dark uniform against the bright sand, ships tilted to the side and being swallowed up by cold water before our very eyes after being bombed, dogfights requiring incredible attention as threats can and do appear at every direction are only some of the examples of the film’s visual feasts. Despite these stunning images, however, we never forget about the bullet-ridden bodies, cold corpses buried in the sand, drowned individuals who were eager to get home just a few moments ago. Couple these images and impressions with carefully executed dialogue of old men sending young boys to fight the war that the former started. A tragic feeling pervades the material.
“Dunkirk” is a top-level war film without sentimentality. Those who require selfless heroism shot in a grandiose way as score crescendos, designed to render the viewers emotionally vulnerable, are certain to be letdown by this most capable and confident work. In my mind, there is no doubt that the film will endure the test of time.