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Dunkirk Movie Review

Dunkirk (2017) movie poster Dunkirk

Theatrical Release: July 21, 2017 / Running Time: 106 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Writer/Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Fionn Whitehead (Tommy), Tom Glynn-Carney (Peter), Jack Lowden (Collins), Harry Styles (Alex), Aneurin Barnard (Gibson), James D'Arcy (Colonel Winnant), Barry Keoghan (George), Kenneth Branagh (Commander Bolton), Cillian Murphy (Shivering Soldier), Mark Rylance (Mr. Dawson), Tom Hardy (Farrier)


If you were to define the filmmaking career of writer-director-producer Christopher Nolan in one word, "inventive" might work.
Nolan broke out with a film that flipped chronological storytelling on its head, proceeded to breathe life into the superhero movie by making them more like crime thrillers, and made everyone think with the ambitious, original, stylish Inception and Interstellar. In light of all that, Nolan's decision to make a World War II drama feels like a step back creatively.

Not a year goes by without a WWII drama, most of them based on true events. There's no way for Nolan to reinvent the genre or to invent history, something he flirted with on The Prestige, his last period film. Thus, perhaps none too surprisingly, Dunkirk does not offer a mind-bending experience. Instead, it gives us the Christopher Nolan version of a war movie, one that is big on ambition, set pieces, and tension, but disappointingly light on a compelling narrative and characters.

"Dunkirk" stars Fionn Whitehead as Tommy, a young British private who sneaks onto a ship as part of the Dunkirk evacuation.

Set in May 1940, Dunkirk details the Dunkirk evacuation. Onscreen text supplies some context, explaining that German forces are surrounding the Allied soldiers of Britain, Belgium, Canada, and France on the beaches of Dunkirk, France. Our point of entrance is a young Brit named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), who squeaks out to safety amidst air raids. Along with a silent ally, Tommy sneaks onto a ship, where he is surrounded by many British soldiers, all of them in danger.

That is one angle that Dunkirk pursues. Another is in the modest efforts of an aging mariner (Bridge of Spies Oscar winner Mark Rylance) and two boys who rescue the shivering PTSD-afflicted sole survivor (Cillian Murphy) of a U-boat attack. A third angle finds Tom Hardy (mouth and voice obscured, per Nolan tradition) playing a Royal Air Force pilot patrolling the skies.

Tom Hardy briefly exposes his mouth in the role of Farrier, a Royal Air Force pilot trying to keep Axis forces at bay.

On a technical level, Dunkirk is certainly a polished film. You expect nothing less from Nolan, who was already boasting fine production values on the $9 million budget of Memento.
Nolan's ambitions and budgets have soared in the years since and while Dunkirk's budget has not been widely reported anywhere, it is clearly a substantial figure which justifies Nolan's frequent home Warner Bros. Pictures assigning him their traditionally fruitful mid-July opening (as they have for Dark Knight sequels and Inception). A true film purist, Nolan has been touting the 70mm version that will play in select engagements. That was not what was screened for me and my fellow local critics, but it was still easy to appreciate the visual and sonic impact of this. If Dunkirk doesn't draw a slew of technical award nominations in the Oscars next year, I will be shocked.

But despite the historical predilection the Academy has shown towards war films (and British films for that matter) and the fixture that Warner has consistently been at the Oscars, I don't think Dunkirk will vie for the top honors or earn Nolan the Best Director nomination he's never gotten. Such an omission would not be as outrageous or egregious as Nolan's snubs for The Dark Knight and Interstellar. True, it is a far more Oscar-friendly film than those, on the order of such flawed yet recognized works as The Thin Red Line and Hacksaw Ridge.

Still, this is Nolan's least interesting and exciting film since Insomnia. Though an admirable application of the director's largely unrivaled technical gifts, the film fails to earn your full emotional investment, as it bounces from one moderately gripping thread to another, never blowing you away or letting you feel truly connected to any of these characters or their plights. Is it more worthwhile than most of the major studio films released so far this year? Sure. But if it's competing for Best Picture next winter, it would be because the rest of the year's slate has disappointed or the Academy has proven unable to acknowledge untraditionally prestigious films, like War for the Planet of the Apes or The Big Sick, to name just two considerably more fulfilling summer releases.

It will be interesting to see how Dunkirk performs at the box office. Nolan's name appears to be a very big draw, especially on Inception, which behaved like a tentpole without any established branding or source material. Dunkirk is Nolan's hardest sell since The Prestige, but I'm guessing that the critical acclaim and cineaste buzz (it's already well on its way to joining other Nolan films in the Top 250) has this performing more like a minor blockbuster than just a mid-range hit.

Related Reviews:
Directed by Christopher Nolan: Interstellar The Dark Knight Rises The Prestige Following
Now in Theaters: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets War for the Planet of the Apes The Big Sick Spider-Man: Homecoming Baby Driver
Tom Hardy: The Drop The Revenant Mad Max: Fury Road Lawless
Mark Rylance: Bridge of Spies The BFG | Cillian Murphy: Transcendence In the Heart of the Sea Broken
World War II: Hacksaw Ridge The Thin Red Line From Here to Eternity

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Reviewed July 19, 2017.

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