Review: Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ uses war to find grace in us all

“Dunkirk” features visceral imagery and Christopher Nolan’s hydrophobia. (Courtesy of Youtube)

“War is hell” is an adage that’s driven generations of war films. But few capture the  existential dread felt by soldiers like Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk.” A re-telling of a legendary evacuation from the beaches of France – where Britain suffered its largest WWII defeat – the film is steeped in the threat of death. Soldiers are killed by artillery fire and air raids often. The mere sound of the German planes is enough to make 400,000 men at arms, stranded and without cover, fear for their lives. It’s only a matter of time until the enemy reaches the beaches from the mainland. Until then, there’s little to do but wait for evacuation. Hope seems lost.

For 106 minutes it feels like an inescapable, malevolent force. Not a single German soldier appears onscreen, but no one is safe.

Nolan has been a connoisseur of big-budget filmmaking since his “Dark Knight” trilogy, and he maintains a loyal fanbase thanks to that series and headier projects like “Inception.” His talent behind the camera is undeniable, but so is his tendency to over-explain and over-analyze. This habit turned 2014’s “Interstellar” from a project with great visual promise into a dull expository slog by its ending.

“Dunkirk” feels like a response to those criticisms. Nolan works almost entirely with visceral imagery here. Gone are patches of clunky dialogue that usually threaten to torpedo his films. Instead, he structures one of humanity’s greatest war stories — the escape of over 400,000 troops across the English Channel — around three perspectives. “The Mole” follows a pair of soldiers (Fionn Whitehead and Damien Bonnard) as they wait for rescue on the beach for almost a week. “The Sea,” set over a day, focuses on a middle-aged Brit (Mark Rylance) piloting his yacht across the Channel with his son to aid in the evacuation. “The Air” takes place over an hour as a pilot in the Royal Air Force (Tom Hardy) battles German planes over the water.

These stories only occasionally cross narrative paths. Outside of those moments, the film feels like a patchwork of different perspectives on the same event. Characters have names but are largely unrecognizable; they could be anyone. Their personalities are less important than the horror of their experience, communicated in part thanks to the film’s haunting sound design. Gunshots rattle the theater, and the score — by Nolan regular Hans Zimmer — is built around an eerie drone. The effect is one of perpetual unease. 

“Dunkirk” is labeled a war film, but it really belongs in the horror genre. Blood and guts are absent, which helped the film earn its PG-13 rating. Don’t think for a second that that softens the experience. Terror comes from what we don’t see. The screams of drowning soldiers are arguably more harrowing than their open wounds. Nolan’s hydrophobia — many of his films feature death by water — is on full display, but he exhibits remarkable restraint; not once does the violence feels exploitive.

This is a film that demands to be seen in a large format. A smattering of theaters across the country — only two in Oregon — are projecting it in 70mm, which renders the seaside landscapes like humongous canvases. IMAX screens are more plentiful, and worth the extra price of admission. In a career marked by visual extravagance, this is Nolan’s best-looking film.

What makes “Dunkirk” truly remarkable — beyond the masterfully handled tension and terror — is the film’s humanity. War has rarely been this frightening onscreen, but the enormity of saving someone feels uniquely monumental.

“Dunkirk” is an emotionally harrowing film, even if Nolan overplays his climactic hand in the final 45 minutes. Amidst the chaos, there’s grace. A pilot sacrifices his escape to save thousands. A young boy takes care of a shellshocked soldier. And a volunteer hands out hundreds of blankets to survivors.

“All we did was survive,” a soldier bitterly tells him. The man doesn’t even look up before replying.“That’s enough.”

Watch the trailer for “Dunkirk” below:

Follow Dana on Twitter @AlstonDalston.

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