[Screen It]


(2017) (Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance) (PG-13)

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Drama: Various WWII military figures and civilians must contend with the attempts to evacuate thousands of Allied troops who are surrounded by German forces at the seaside city of Dunkirk, France.
It's 1940 and German military divisions have pushed Allied troops to the coast and surrounded them at the seaside city of Dunkirk, France. Among those stuck there is Tommy (FIONN WHITEHEAD), a British soldier who manages to avoid German snipers who pick off those around him in the city, leaving him out on the shore with thousands of other soldiers awaiting evacuation. Overseeing that operation is naval Commander Bolton (KENNETH BRANAGH) and Col. Winnant (JAMES D'ARCY) from the army, but they don't have enough rescue ships and the water is too shallow to pick up those on the shore. That leaves them at the mercy of German fighter planes that routinely bomb and strafe the beach with machine gun fire.

Realizing a possible way out, Tommy and another soldier, Gibson (ANEURIN BARNARD), grab a stretcher and run a wounded man toward a relief ship, hoping to set sail on that. When that doesn't work, they try other means and eventually end up alongside another soldier, Alex (HARRY STYLES), who joins them in their quest to get out of harm's way.

Hoping to help along those lines is Mr. Dawson (MARK RYLANCE), a middle-aged civilian who's heeded the call of Winston Churchill for all available boats to head across the English channel and rescue as many as men as possible. Joining him is his teenage son, Peter (TOM GLYNN-CARNEY), and that young man's 17-year-old friend, George (BARRY KEOGHAN) on their small boat. Along the way, they come across a sunken ship with just one survivor (CILLIAN MURPHY) and rescue him. But they must then contend with his PTSD and strong desire not to return to Dunkirk.

Those willingly headed there, however, also include RAF pilots Farrier (TOM HARDY) and Collins (JACK LOWDEN) who fly their Spitfire fighters in search of German fighters and bombers wishing to inflict harm on the Allied forces. Engaging in dogfights with the enemy, they do what they can to protect the ongoing evacuation.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
Back in 1970, Edwin Starr's single "War" became a number one single and helped fuel the anti-war movement in regard to Vietnam with its oft-repeated lyric of "War, huh, yeah. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Say it again.." Granted, much of that lies in any given context and personal opinion, but few will argue that some wars -- such as WWII -- are good for stopping horrible leaders and countries from their tyrannical ways.

From an artistic standpoint, however, war is often good for creating terrific war movies that, ironically enough, point out how bad war is. But they also showcase bravery, self-sacrifice and the will of the human spirit to defeat evil. Just look at "Apocalypse Now," "Platoon" and "Saving Private Ryan" for just a few examples of that. And now one can add "Dunkirk" to that list.

While the evacuation of Allied forces from the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk, France in 1940 during WWII might not be as familiar as say, Pearl Harbor, the Battle of the Bulge, Iwo Jima, Midway or the Normandy Invasion, it was no less remarkable. After all, several hundred thousand British, French and Canadian soldiers were ultimately evacuated from the French city -- after being surrounded there by many German divisions -- not only by the British navy but also a flotilla of civilian ships of all shapes and sizes called in to lend a hand.

Despite the ultimate success of the endeavor, however, Winston Churchill famously stated "We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations." With that in mind, writer/director Christopher Nolan ("Interstellar," the "Batman - Dark Knight" trilogy, "Inception," etc.) presents his fictionalized rendition of the event through three initially separate but eventually interconnected stories.

Titled "#1 The Mole - One Week," "#2 The Sea -- One Day" and "#3 The Air - One Hour," the 107-minute film unfolds in a nonlinear fashion that may eventually seem like just a storytelling gimmick. But as Nolan did in "Memento" (where the scenes were arranged backward yet revealed more information as they did so), the filmmaker uses that non-traditional approach to his narrative advantage.

The first installment focuses on a week where one soldier (Fionn Whitehead) manages to survive German snipers in an otherwise deserted city setting, only to find himself out on the shore with thousands of soldiers arranged in long lines aimed at the beach -- and the double digit-mile distance to safety across the English channel -- waiting their turn to be ferried out of their current hell. While the two officers in charge (Kenneth Branagh and James D'Arcy) lament the lack of military boats, the shallow water and other obstacles they face, the hordes of men must contend with bombing and strafing runs conducted by German fighter planes.

Accordingly, our central character is this segment ends up focused on self-survival and finds himself accompanied by a like-minded soldier (Aneurin Barnard) and eventually a former member of the boy band One Direction (Harry Styles) as they try various ways of getting off the beach, only to encounter even greater dangers doing that.

The second installment - that's intercut with the first and third -- involves a middle-aged boat owner (Mark Rylance) who, along with his teenage son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and that boy's 17-year-old friend (Barry Keoghan), sets sail across the channel in hopes of doing their civic duty and rescuing as many men as possible in their relatively small boat. Along the way, they end up rescuing the apparent lone and decidedly shell-shocked survivor (Cillian Murphy) of a sunken ship who has no intention of heading back into the maelstrom, all of which leads to some unexpected developments.

And the third part focuses on two RAF pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) who soar through the skies in their Spitfire fighters, looking for enemy planes and hoping to prevent those from attacking Allied and civilian ships. That mission ends up complicated by one having to ditch his plane in the sea, while the other (Hardy, once again having to act mainly through his eyes -- just like he did in Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises" -- due to usually wearing his cockpit oxygen mask) must contend with a fuel gauge that's now inoperative due to a bullet strike.

With the three stories and their various characters, there's no central hero for the overall offering (unlike, say, Tom Hanks in "Saving Private Ryan"), we know very little about most of the characters beyond what's shown on the surface, and there really isn't a great deal of dialogue for any of them to speak.

Yet despite that, often literally being thrown right into the action, and the film often operating on more of a visceral response than a deep emotional connection to the characters, Nolan manages to grab our attention from the start and never lets go for the entirety of the film's duration.

Much of that obviously stems from the filmmaker's storytelling and directorial prowess, but the editing (courtesy of Lee Smith) is also terrific, Hoyte Van Hoytema's cinematography is superb and Hans Zimmer's non-traditional score heightens every scene and then some. The rest of the various tech credits are also top-notch. While our press screening oddly was not in an IMAX theater or one capable of projecting a 70mm print, the experience was nonetheless still fully immersive and I imagine the larger format print versions would only heighten that.

Yet another example that one of the few good things war is good for is creating terrific films, "Dunkirk" is easily an early Oscar contender in various categories, including Best Picture. I can't wait to see it again to further study Nolan's masterful grasp of cinematic storytelling. The film rates as an 8 out of 10.

Reviewed July 17, 2017 / Posted July 21, 2017

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