Movie Review: Dunkirk (2017) *Another Nolan Masterpiece*


Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s 10th film.  In 10 films, Nolan has already put together a body of work that marks him as the best director of his generation, but he’s still getting better.  The Miracle at Dunkirk is one of the most important moments of World War II and Nolan immerses you in it in a complete sensory experience.  He combines staggering IMAX cinematography, lightning-fast editing, multiple perspectives, and a score designed to make you as tense as the soldiers on the beach to produce a film that still feels like a Nolan film, but is also the best war film made since Saving Private Ryan and 2017’s best film to date.


Nazis showering soldiers with this leaflet opens Dunkirk and quickly establishes the bleak position the British forces are in on the beach.  It’s May 1940, and in eight months Hitler has rolled east and west across Europe, so fast, and so devastatingly that they’ve trapped 400,000 troops with their back to the English channel.  Rather than wasting troops or tanks, Hitler’s bombers and fighters are making runs on the beach picking them off from the air.  Britain was next on Hitler’s list, and the eradication of the army on the beach would leave the isle woefully undermanned.  Nolan gives you this flier at the beginning along with the time it takes to make the journey across the English channel, and then you’re dumped right into the conflict.


Dunkirk is not about dialogue (though this had to have been one of the most difficult screenplays of Nolan’s career in terms of the logistics of constantly interweaving storylines), it’s not about big actors, it’s not about Hollywood moments, and it’s not about character development.  The movie puts viewers inside the experience, and doesn’t coddle them.  You follow four main threads: the soldiers waiting on the beach, two soldiers moving from doomed vessel to doomed vessel, a wing of fighter pilots trying to defend the ships from the air, and one of the hundreds of ships (693 in total) that ferried soldiers across the channel.  Nolan can’t help but play with non-linear time a bit in how this storylines converge, and I was worried for a bit he was going to lose the human element or the grand impact of what Dunkirk meant for the war, when everything comes together in a moment of convergence and it’s about then that you realize that you’ve been in a full-body clench from the tension since the film began.


Pete Hammond in Deadline’s review of Dunkirk had a great line: “this is a war film that Hitchcock would have loved.”  That’s so true.  Just as Hitchcock was the master of building tension, Nolan uses the urgency of the situation, quick cuts between his story threads, and sound and score to build an almost unbearable tension in the audience.  No one talked in my theater.  No one took their eyes off the screen.  People were just hanging on.  Sound plays such a huge role in Dunkirk’s success, a constant ticking of the clock combined with the sounds of war and Hans Zimmer’s masterful score do as much to establish the film’s tone as any explosion or dogfight.  Zimmer’s score is a perfect example of one that works for the film, but one you’ll never find yourself humming.  Much in the way he created a dissonant sound of dread for the Joker in The Dark Knight, Zimmer crafts an entire score around creating urgency and fear.


It’s absolutely essential that, if you have any interest in this film at all, you go see it in the theaters and you see it in IMAX.  Most movies, it really doesn’t matter, but it does with Dunkirk.  The immense shots of the beach, but most especially for the aerial dogfights, which are nothing short of incredible.  Nolan hates CGI and only uses it when he absolutely has to, so I know he restored these WWII planes and staged these amazing aerial battles while filming them in IMAX; I just have no idea HOW he pulled it off.


It’s sad, but given the state of most people’s interest in history, if there isn’t a movie monument to an event, it’s most likely to be forgotten by the majority of people.  That’s sad, but Dunkirk provides a fitting memorial to the bravery of one of the most important moments in World War II, the soldiers who lived through it, and the British people who took pretty much anything larger than a bathtub with a motor and sent it across the Channel to bring their boys home.  It’s an astounding story and an equally stunning movie homage.



19 thoughts on “Movie Review: Dunkirk (2017) *Another Nolan Masterpiece*”

  1. This might be my favorite war film. I know how strong that statement is. I’m sure I’ve seen hundreds of them in my life. I’m not saying it’s the best war movie of all time, though it is up there, but this is exactly the war film Hitchcock would have made. It is not an epic, but a thriller. The originality of the approach, the jaw dropping images and scope, the stark and arresting cinematography, the dramatic minimalism coupled with the structural complexity, the honesty of the performances and situations, Han Zimmer’s best score of all time, and an amazing true story told with almost (for Hollywood) superhuman restraint have all been organized and orchestrated by Nolan into a miracle of a movie. I cannot wait to see it again.

    I did not even know what Harry Styles looked like when I went in, and I did not know who he played until the credits rolled.

    Do you think the reading of Churchill’s speech at the end was meant to be subversive? Because after what I had just watched, all the desperate clawing to escape, I really wondered if Nolan was questioning the conventional narrative. Or was the point simply that our soldier friend did not realize the meaning of what he had been through until he heard that speech? How far was Nolan taking the ambiguity, do you think?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think the point was to take the soldier out of his own perspective of what he had just experienced and realize what it had meant to his country and to remind both him and the audience that this wasn’t the end but the preparation for the hammerblow about to fall as the Nazis pushed forward.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Ok, glad to hear you say that. After the end of Inception I have an unfortunate propensity to read too much into the end of Nolan movies. For a while I argued that Alfred didn’t really see Bruce and Selina at the end of DKR, until someone smacked me.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Listen to Peter. The point of the end of Inception is that it does not matter.

        There is an old story about three buddhists looking at a bottle. The first one says, the bottle is not a bottle. The second one asks, then what the heck is it? The third one says, I’m going to leave you guys to this while I go and try to achieve nirvanna.

        Questions about the nature of reality have the power to obsess us, but are ultimately unimportant. DiCaprio was with his kids, finally, and he decided to just not look.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Hey! If I could just create ten seconds of imagery, and make it communicate something meaningful to millions of different people, I would, but while Christopher Nolan was not going to film school, I was going to school.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. BTW… and sorry for being off topic, but I want your opinion…. do you think I should wear my adoration of Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planets like a badge, or pretend I don’t know what it is? I’ve never loved a film before that was a bomb like this is going to be. Seriously, this is going to be really, reaaaaally ugly.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment and the follow! I should have looked it up for the article, and am amending it now, but that’s what you get writing a review in the middle of the night. It came from an article by the very fine Pete Hammond over at Deadline.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s