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It begins with sound.
The high pitched whine fills the air.
Then the soldiers see the speck that becomes a terrifying silhouette.
It’s a German dive bomber, zeroing in on the hundreds of men, waiting on the shores of Dunkirk for rescue.
This is just one of a series of striking images from director Christopher Nolan. In the past he’s pushed the boundaries of blockbuster, sending us into space, the gritty streets of Gotham City and into a time-bending story that folds into itself.
But Dunkirk is nothing like Interstellar, The Dark Knight or Inception because this is no fantastical tale. Instead Nolan is challenging himself to capture the truth of the pivotal 1940 evacuation that changed the course of the Second World War.
To do this Nolan pares the story down to the essentials, throwing overboard any sense of back story or emotional baggage. What remains is pure predicament. We begin, with the soldiers on the run, their backs to the camera as they dash for the coast. The army is in retreat, caught in the vice grip of the advancing Germans. The enemy is rarely seen, but felt, as the pressure increases and some 400,000 men wait on the water’s edge for deliverance.
Shot on 70mm with Imax cameras, the ocean fills the frame — but in this film the sharks are in the sky, as the German planes go hunting.
Throughout his career, Nolan has shown a fascination with time, and once again he uses a nonlinear approach. Dunkirk is told through three intersecting segments, each with their own sense of time.
We spend an hour in the sky, following two British Spitfire pilots, outnumbered and low on fuel, trying to keep the bombers at bay. With cameras mounted on actual planes, it’s a stunning perspective on aerial combat.
As the Spitfires zip by, Nolan also brings us the story of the boats below. When the Navy realized their warships couldn’t access the soldiers due to the shallow water, a fleet of civilian craft set off to bring the boys home. Mark Rylance appears as the stoic Mr. Dawson, a typical Brit who with his fedora and topcoat heads off to France with his son and another local boy.
The last of the three segments is the tale of the soldiers, scrambling and scheming to get off the beach by any means necessary. Carrying wounded soldiers or hanging onto a barely floating bit of wreckage, the only thing that matters is getting off that sand.
Harry Styles is one of a number of young actors who communicated a wordless sense of desperation. Most of the soldiers don’t have names in the credits, only descriptions, perhaps because the details would only slow this harrowing tick-tock of a film down. Dunkirk’s focus is the unforgiving mechanics of it all. There are men. There is water, and somewhere on the other side of it all, home.
There have been many war films, but Dunkirk is unlike most. Part of what makes it so stunning is the sense of clarity with which the director captures the action, using real boats, battleships and planes.
The result puts us in this environment in a way rarely seen: The pilot’s slow laborious dogfights, the claustrophobic chaos of the soldiers scrambling off a ship, and even Mr. Dawson’s pleasure boat has its own small scale drama when a wounded officer is hauled onboard.
It is all undeniably epic, but different than other combat classics such as Saving Private Ryan or A Bridge Too Far, because there is also an intimacy to it all.
This is movie that doesn’t hold your hand or allow you to catch your breath, and yet the most remarkable aspect might be that this is a war film that celebrates the simple act of surviving.
Rating: 4 and a half stars out of 5.