Hope in an age of darkness: Nolan's 'Dunkirk' is sublime white-knuckle cinema

ENNETH BRANAGH as Commander Bolton in the Warner Bros. Pictures action thriller "DUNKIRK," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (Photo: Warner Bros.)

4.5 out of 5 Stars
Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy
Genre: Action, Drama, History
Rated: PG-13 for intense war experience and some language

Synopsis: The evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France in 1940.

Review: If there has been one Achilles heel to Christopher Nolan’s career it has been the general bleakness that has dominated his films. Even at its most hopeful moments, Nolan’s Batman trilogy was submerged in a sense of dread. “Memento,” “Inception” and “Interstellar” are all arguably love stories, but they are presented from a cool and detached perspective. With “Dunkirk” Nolan has found a sense of humanity and hope.

The narrative is creatively split into trio of stories that by film’s end all merge to offer audiences a view of the action from the land, sea and air.

The land segments focus on the soldiers as they wait to be rescued en masse on the beach as German aircraft periodically rain hell from above.

The air sequences focus on a trio of British fighter pilots as they look to protect the evacuees.

The sea follows a civilian family as they take their personal boat in hopes of shuttling a handful of troops back to safety.

Tom Hardy dominates the air storyline, but there really isn’t a leading role in the traditional sense as Mark Rylance with Cillian Murphy dominate the sea aspects of the journey and Kenneth Branagh headlines over the many characters on the beach.

This split focus undercuts certain aspects of character development, but in this case that isn’t problematic because their motivations are very clear; these men simply want to survive. There isn’t any time for reflecting on home or life before war.

Speaking of time, it might surprise you to learn that “Dunkirk” has a run time of 106 minutes. It’s the shortest film Nolan has made since his 70-minute debut “Following” in 1998. The brevity is appreciated in the sense that “Dunkirk,” despite its relatively short length, will leave you feeling exhausted because it is

“Dunkirk” is a tension-filled epic. There are momentary reprieves, but the majority of these beats are quickly undercut by scenes of devastation. There is no real safety to be found along the coast of France. Not in the air, on the land nor on the sea.

Whereas Steven Spielberg ratcheted up the realistic violence for “Saving Private Ryan,” Nolan’s “Dunkirk” features the mayhem and terror without all the gore. It is an interesting choice that ultimately allows the film to receive a PC-13 rating, but doesn’t sacrifice the general sense of chaos and panic. Of course, Dunkirk was a completely different kind of battle that found Allied troops fleeing the beach, rather than trying to retake it from a deeply entrenched Germany army.

For all the doom, there is a sense of hope that simmers beneath the surface. The kind of hope that has civilians and soldiers alike risking their lives to save any and all that are stranded. It is these acts of bravery and selflessness that come to define Nolan’s “Dunkirk.”

Of course we know how things turn out, but it is interesting to note that Dunkirk took place in 1940, five years before World War II would end. Darker times were ahead.

“Dunkirk” is a fantastic experience, particularly if you are able to catch it in IMAX or a large-screen format. It’s loud and overwhelming, but was isn’t exactly known for being subtle or quiet.

Is this Nolan’s finest moment? I think that argument can be made.

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