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‘Dunkirk’ Review: This Is How You Top ‘Saving Private Ryan’

Fantastic performances from Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance, stellar cinematography, plus a deftly crafted narrative make Dunkirk one of the best films this year.

Summary

This film centers around Operation Dynamo and the attempted rescue of 400,000 stranded troops from the shores of Dunkirk. An all call was made to every civilian sailor to take their vessel across the English channel to rescue as many of the soldiers as possible. This effort wasn’t as simple as depicted in the 1940’s British propaganda film from ‘Their Finest.’ High winds, crashing waves, German U-Boats, and bombers all had clear shots and any incoming vessels thus making them targets as well. The story is told from three perspectives. The Mole (giving us the perspective of the soldiers who were stranded on land thus being easy targets for any number of German sharp shooters or aircraft), air (from the perspective of two spitfire pilots … one of which is played by Hardy), and of course the sea (which centers around the civilian rescue). The three stories are masterfully interwoven and it’s not until the very end of the film that audiences are let in on how all the characters are connected.

Dunkirk

What Worked

Christopher Nolan found a way to manipulate time during the narrative. The portions taking place on land happen in one week, while the air battle takes place in one hour, and all the elements at sea take place over 24-hours. By doing this it created the element of chaos which is often associated with War. It also gave this feeling that in the midst of the worst military disaster in British history, that time was beginning to blend together. That mixture heightened the intensity of the film.

The use IMAX Cameras captured both the beauty and the brutality of war. In one instance we get a nice shot of the water just as a torpedo rips through the side of a Red Cross boat housing the wounded as it slowly sinks to its watery grave. Nolan used this technology throughout the film, even when two soldiers were rushing up to load one of the last of the wounded in hopes of sneaking on the medical vessel.

The sound was extremely crucial in this film. Nolan cranks up the ambient noise making the audience feel uncomfortable which one can only imagine wasn’t even 1/100th of the way these soldiers felt as it was happening. By raising the noise levels at various times in the picture, it takes the audiences out of the theater and places them right in the middle of this conflict. The sound adds to the visceral nature of the film.

The dog fight scenes were crisp, briskly paced, and shot beautifully. By mounting that IMAX Camera on the Spitfire, Hoyte van Hoytema was able to get some amazing shots. By having the camera facing forward, it gave the sensation that you were in the cockpit flying right with Hardy’s character.

Nolan didn’t hold back and thoroughly explored the horrors of being in combat against a relentless enemy. We were treated to scenes of sailors trapped as boats tipped over, bridges being blown to bits, and seeing countless soldiers abandoning ship only to be shot at in the water.

Dunkirk

The use of dialogue was minimal at various points in the film. Banter would have distracted us from the sheer hell these brave men were experiencing.

The film was filled with strong performances. The two standouts performances for me were Rylance and Hardy. Rylance is able to project strength even in the most subtle of ways during the rescue portion of the film. There’s a point in the film when he realizes that a major tragedy has befallen him (can’t spoil it) and for a split second he has this profound look of sadness which morphs into the look a man who just wants to carry on. In his mind, he has a job to do. Hardy plays one of the Spitfire pilots and spends over 1/2 the film with his face covered. There comes a point where he realizes that the fuel on the plane is as low as it can go without running out of gas and sees one of the British ships be destroyed. He immediately gets this intense look and pushes the plane as far as he could, taking out the remaining enemy fighters.

Hans Zimmer’s score was haunting and certainly adds more tension to the film.

Overall

Dunkirk is a triumph for not only Christopher Nolan but filmmaking as a whole. Nolan has found a way to bridge the gap between the theatrical and the practical resulting in an experience that will immerse audiences on many levels. Audiences members will gasp as the U-Boat rips through the British vessels. Their hearts will break as Cillian Murphy begs to go home and not to the front line. Nolan has found a way to bring out the horrors of war and it’s terrifying to the core. How does Dunkirk compare to other recent war films? Hacksaw Ridge and Saving Private Ryan are great films, but Dunkirk  takes the experience to the next level.

Dewey Singleton - Film Critic
Dewey Singleton - Film Critic
I'm a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and have been doing reviews for many years. My views on film are often heard in markets such as Atlanta, Houston, and satellite radio. My wife often tolerates my obsession for all things film related and two sons are at an age now where 'Trolls' is way cooler than dad. Follow me on twitter @mrsingleton.
'Dunkirk' Review: This Is How You Top 'Saving Private Ryan'Fantastic performances from Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance, stellar cinematography, plus a deftly crafted narrative make Dunkirk one of the best films this year. Summary This film centers around Operation Dynamo and the attempted rescue of 400,000 stranded troops from the shores of Dunkirk. An all call was...