Review: Nolan's 'Dunkirk' is as Riveting as it is Groundbreaking

July 22, 2017

Dunkirk Review

When it comes to telling a story about war, the filmmaking game has been hitting many of the same strides for a couple of decades now. Ever since 1998's Saving Private Ryan and the opening scene set on Omaha Beach, war movies, especially those set during World War II, have been satisfied retreading that same water, rolling with similar tides, giving us much of what we've already seen before. It takes a true craftsman in the game to deliver something fresh but still maintain a sense of scope, compassion, and intensity. That craftsman, apparently, is Christopher Nolan, who has been reshaping genres and defying expectations since his 2000 thriller, Memento, floored audiences with its disjointed structure. Nolan is the craftsman, and Dunkirk, a WWII movie unlike any seen or experienced before, is the stunning result of his craft.

Told over the course of one week in the extremely early days of the Second World War, the film quickly brushes over the necessary exposition setting the stage with simple narration through title cards. In the town of Dunkirk in the North of France, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops were trapped and surrounded by the invading, German forces. In May and June of 1940, these Allied soldiers were evacuated from the area with what little resources Britain, France, and Belgium could spare at the time. Needless to say, the evacuation was a long and arduous process with many Allied troops believing help and their salvation would never come. For many of them, it didn't before it was too late.

Dunkirk Review

With the setting established, Nolan drops us right into the thick of it all: the constant barrage of attacks against the troops lining the beach from the fighter planes buzzing around above them. Nolan, who also serves as the screenwriter here, isn't satisfied letting this play out in the typical way either. His screenplay is broken up over three, separate stories showing the events as they play out from the land, the sea, and even the air. Not satisfied with telling these individual stories in typical fashion, either, Nolan jumps between them, sometimes at the expense of straightforward continuity. The weeklong attempt of survival for the soldiers on the beach is edited along with the day-long trip it takes for the boats to reach the island from the mainland and the hour-long trip for the planes in the sky. It all comes across as somewhat confusing at first, but, once the timelines are established and begin to be fleshed out, it all moves together in a beautiful and riveting symphony of survivalism and heroism.

Nolan's film is completely stripped of needless exposition or even the typical developments commonly found in films about war. We aren't given any backstory for any of the characters, and, oftentimes, we aren't even given a name to go along with the character. While this may appear to keep the emotion at an arm's length, the very notion of surviving an impossible situation and the bravery of those who faced it down comes through crystal clear. Dunkirk allows these ideas to speak for themselves without being bogged down by explanation. This may come across as awkward for some, but Nolan's structure here is deliberate and ends up benefiting the stories as a whole as well as the war film in which it makes up.

Dunkirk Review

The moments of silence are few and far between with Nolan inundating us with the constant dangers that surround these characters. He also utilizes Hans Zimmer's throbbing score as a character, itself, hardly ever falling away completely and constantly serving as a reminder that there is no rest for those involved. Likewise, the choices made in the film's narrative structure only help to amplify the harrowing task of those attempting to rescue these men, in particular the story of a Royal Air Force pilot (Tom Hardy) whose hour in the sky is a constant onslaught of bravery and danger.

Hardy, to his credit, gives a resonating performance despite the simplicity of his story. As with many of Hardy's previous performances, his eyes do most of the talking, what they are saying giving off as much emotion as many, straightforward performances of this ilk. Likewise, the story of soldiers on the beach, particularly those played by Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles, are filled to the brim with emotion despite the lack of commonly found narrative beats. The story told at sea, however, is the most powerful of them all with Mark Rylance giving an incredible performance as a civilian mariner en route to help with the evacuation. Rylance is rock steady and perfectly informed even with the lack of typical emotion to drive him, and it's this story that Nolan could have easily turned into a feature-length film all by itself.

Christopher Nolan has quickly established himself as a filmmaker who is always looking for the road less traveled when it comes to the stories he tells. With Dunkirk, he has once again shaken up a genre and delivered something that will likely become the new establishment for future stories. Hard-hitting and wrapped in the inherent emotion that comes from stories about war, Dunkirk is an experience of World War II unlike any we've seen before. It has quickly become a wonder to guess where Nolan's career will take him next, but, with Dunkirk it will be even more interesting to see where war movies go from here.

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Nolan is one of my favourites and easily the best director in Hollywood right now. But I have had a hard time getting excited for this movie.

Jon Odishaw on Jul 22, 2017


Me too!

ASB on Jul 22, 2017


Me too!

Moe on Jul 23, 2017


Do you hack bloggers beat off to Nolan also? Sheesh.

Jimmy Hauser on Jul 22, 2017


Pretty amazing and intense movie, especially just in 70mm not even IMAX 70mm.

Christopher Binder on Jul 22, 2017


Yes...Need to see it nyahhhhh.

DAVIDPD on Jul 22, 2017


Dammit dislike the topic, but every critic says it's a marvel in the Hollywood wave of mediocre movies. Dammit!!

ari smulders on Jul 23, 2017


I'm off to see it tonight. I like a war film and know a bit about the war but my expectations are low. Can it get across the fear and intensity of war with just a PG13 rating, will it be able to make me care if it's painted in such broad brush strokes and will Nolan's desire to be a little different be a misfire? The critics have seemingly beeen going mental for it but that's no real indicator of quality.

Payne by name on Jul 23, 2017


It gets across the fear with sound and reactions. You don't even care about the rating , believe me when I say this.

deerosa on Jul 24, 2017



boball on Jul 23, 2017


not enjoyable by those who have busy lives. this movie will only tire you out.

boball on Jul 23, 2017


Agree with Jeremy's review here. I saw it twice this weekend in IMAX 70MM Film and was blown away from the dogfight scenes. The Last scene with Hardy was awesome too. I do not know if this is a fixture with Nolan's movies but the soundtrack was so deafening it was hard to here what they were saying at times, a la the Dark Knight Rises. I will admit many people are making comments that you are not attached to any of the characters, this is correct but this film was made that way. It puts you in the middle of it and you have to figure out how to survive.

deerosa on Jul 24, 2017


I really don't understand all the praise this is getting. It's a confusing, poorly edited mess. Nolan's strange preoccupation with messing about with timelines is completely unnecessary and actually hurts the film. With the exception of Mark Rylance & Kenneth Branagh, none of the characters register at all, so there's no emotional involvement. There are some extremely well staged set pieces but Nolan's inability to tell a cohesive tale drags the film down. This has been the year's biggest disappointment for me.

Tony Woolstencroft on Jul 24, 2017


Other than Memento and Inception which was at least fun I'm pretty unimpressed by Nolan honestly.

ff on Jul 24, 2017


Justback from the movie, after 45 minutes i really was like WTF.

Rembo on Jul 24, 2017


Just saw it on Sunday. IMAX, 70MM. I understand some of the peoples subjective opinions, but what I don't understand is the ambiguous dislike of Nolan himself. Here's a man using as much practical effects as possible, while other "pioneer" filmmakers, Spielberg included, continue fill their films with CGI making their worlds plastic and distractingly un-examinable. This film felt as if I was there, watching these moments. Yes, I admit the timelines were a bit confounding at times, but once I understood the rhythm to them I was locked. It's been years since a single scene has moved me to surprise tears in a theater. This film did it. Granted, I'm very familiar with Dunkirk history, and I have to say: this film did it incredible justice. This was a tribute to those 400,000 men stuck on a beach awaiting their fate by the hands of German forces, bent on spreading their ill will on the world. I will see this again.

Quanah on Jul 24, 2017


Very disappointing movie of an actual event in history. Around seven hundred civilian and merchant marine craft crossed the channel to rescue four hundred thousand men from the beach at Dunkirk under bombardment from the Germans. In this movie we saw less than what looked like a thousand soldiers at most and a dozen or less civilian craft. I’ve been waiting for a great movie to be made of this event since I read about it as a teenager. It’s such an amazing story but Nolan has squibbed it. The definitive movie of this event has yet to be made.

Ross Carroll on Jul 25, 2017


What a sad waste of life war is. Quite a movie. I'm never usually fully into Nolan movies, but did really like it. My wife's grandfather was on that beach aged 18, must have been terrifying.

Carpola on Aug 7, 2017


Nolan is definitely a craftsman. And you should expect from him to make a good film. Not great, of course, but good. And that's what he made here. Not that he didn't introduce something in film making, oh yes, he did. Since, the film is some kind of music piece, although, not a symphony. The rhythm totally dictates the story in this film and not the other way around. That means control over the narrative and possibility that it could be any narrative, not just this one. So, historical Dunkirk here is of no importance, just a means to achieve something. Which is an stylish exercise, nothing more. And why film about the war, about the WWII, the last just war as so many people say today? I guess, to not have any moral problems with making his stylish exercise since, it's a just war and nobody is thinking about the spoils of both warring sides. So, I prefer to call Nolan a nerd more than an artist or craftsman. Although, I will always be grateful for Memento, Insomnia and Prestige which were really interesting films. Unlike this one ...

shiboleth on Aug 9, 2017

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