A Movie Review - Dunkirk

In the hands of a different director, Dunkirk would have just been the third act of a movie.  The audience would have been presented with a two and a half to three-hour yarn where we get to know each integral character and present reasons for their motivations. It’s a war movie cliche, and often lifts the veil of realism.  In Dunkirk, the cast wants to survive because they simply do not want to die.  

The plot of Dunkirk is simple. The German army has pushed the French and British armies to the coast.  Half a million men are trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, and the British need to evacuate these men, without risking too many of their ships because they are conserving resources for the upcoming Nazi invasion.

Christopher Nolan has a style all his own. There is always a stillness to his films.  In Dunkirk, he doesn’t rattle the camera to simulate explosions as lesser directors do.  Instead he plants a camera in the sand, along with the soldiers, who lay face down to protect themselves against a German bombing. The explosions steadily and inevitably advance down the beach like the hallway scene in The Shining until it overtakes the camera, and the men.

There are a few haunting scenes.  Nolan sticks a camera in the underwater darkness of a sinking ship and you see a soldier blindly pawing for the ladder that can take him to safety, his hands just inches away. The movements become more desperate, then cease. Another character is trapped underwater. Oil on top of the water has been inflamed, and the character has the choice of drowning, or risk burning to death. Unable to hold his breath any longer, he bursts out of the water, and is engulfed in flames.

The trend in cinema, since the horrifying films spawned from the Vietnam War, to show an unflinching, blood splattered take on war.  Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, a fine movie in its own right, is jarringly gruesome. Nolan has a different take, blood is rarely scene. Yet the film, conducted like a symphony, fixes our eyes on the horrors of war, and the desperation between life and death, and doesn’t look away.

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