Opening this weekend:
Dunkirk--In the hair-raising opening scenes of this historical epic from Christopher Nolan, a young English soldier tries to make it to the title town's beach alive, and just barely succeeds. Aside from surviving, all he really wants to do is find a peaceful place to evacuate his bowels. This is the sort of human detail that many war movies leave out, or treat jocularly, but realities like this are the core of Dunkirk.
Well-played by a newcomer named Fionn Whitehead, the character is listed in the credits as "Tommy," but his name hardly matters. He's an everyman--an everykid, really--and the other young soldiers he meets, played by Aneurin Barnard and One Direction's Harry Styles, are similarly generic. Nolan's script, clearly by design, offers no real characterization, presumably on the theory that backstory, in these circumstances, would be grotesquely irrelevant.
Instead, Nolan relies on his actors to fill in the stock figures. Since the cast includes such vets as Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, James D'Arcy and Tom Hardy, it need hardly be said that this proves a sound strategy.
Almost everything Nolan tries here seems to work. The movie focuses on the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of English and French soldiers, surrounded by the German army and threatened from the air by the Luftwaffe, across the Channel to England in late May and early June of 1940. Nolan cuts between three main strands, "The Mole," aka the breakwater where soldiers like Tommy waited days to be picked up by Navy vessels, "The Sea," in which we follow one of the "Little Ships of Dunkirk," the small civilian commercial and private crafts that took to the Channel to rescue the trapped men, and "The Air," in which we follow three RAF pilots in Spitfires trying to down German airplanes before they can bomb or strafe the evacuees.
The dialogue, sparing to begin with, battles the ambient noise, Hans Zimmer's brooding, gut-vibrating score, and (for us Yanks especially) thick accents, to the point that after a while I mostly gave up and just tried to follow what was going on by context. Similarly, because of the differing travel times required for the three modes of Channel crossing, Dunkirk employs another of those intricately non-chronological time-schemes, as in Momento, so that Nolan can use crosscutting to maximum emotional effect. And while emotional it certainly is, I must confess that in the final third of the film I found myself disoriented at times by where we were in this reticular narrative. But that may have just been me.
In any case, it didn't detract from the overall impact of Dunkirk, which at its best has something like the sweep and punch of the great silent war epics (I saw the film on an IMAX screen, by the way, and recommend this format if it's available to you). The performances, the incongruously gentle hues of Hoyte van Hoytema's exquisite cinematography, and the sustained assurance of Nolan's direction all combined to make this sad, terrifying yet ultimately uplifting story one of the more potent movie experiences I've had in a while.