Rated PG-13, 107 minutes
The electrifying new war film "Dunkirk" offers up an exciting look at a familiar piece of World War II history, focusing on the British evacuation from Dunkirk in France when they were hit hard by the German forces. From acclaimed director Christopher Nolan, known for "The Dark Knight" trilogy and "Inception" among others, it's a striking tour-de-force for the director, who plops his audience right in the middle of the action and doesn't let up. It's also one of the British director's best films and one of the best films of the year thus far.
In May 1940, Germany advanced into France, trapping Allied troops on the beaches of Dunkirk. Under air and ground cover from British and French forces, troops were slowly and methodically evacuated from the beach using every serviceable naval and civilian vessel that could be found. At the end of this heroic mission, 330,000 French, British, Belgian and Dutch soldiers were safely evacuated.
Directed and written by Nolan, "Dunkirk" is a stirring, powerful look at a historical event that is often overshadowed in the U.S. by many other battles such as Iwo Jima, but this is an important look at the resolve and resilience of the British and other Allied forces, who successfully overcame insurmountable odds. This is one of Nolan's best films, mainly because the narrative is the most straight-forward (though still told in typical Nolan non-linear style) of his films, and while it's superbly acted, it's without some big-name stars and a heady central theme. The theme here, of survival, resonates from the first frames of the film.
"Dunkirk" follows the three components of the event: land, sea, and air, and while all the events actually happened, most of the characters are fictional or composite characters, expertly played by a cast of mostly British character actors. Oscar-nominee Tom Hardy is a pilot; Oscar-winner Mark Rylance is a sea boat captain who contributes significantly to the cause of helping the soliders; Cillian Murphy is an unstable solider; Kenneth Branagh and James D'Arcy are leaders on the beach evacuation, and watch for One Direction pop star Harry Styles in a small role a soldier.
Still, Nolan lets most of the action tell the story, and the audience is thrown into the middle of the action with little dialogue. You'll soon realize in "Dunkirk" that the British and other Allied forces are being hit by German forces with swift force, and their main goal is to survive and evacuate. The production values are usually high in Nolan's films, and they're first rate here too, with Hoyte Van Hoytema ("Interstellar") stark yet rich photography, Nolan's go-to guy for music, the excellent Hans Zimmer, along with detailed sets, costumes and sound - the sound of those incoming German planes is unforgettably loud.
Nolan would've been more helpful to provide brief introduction at the beginning before throwing audiences into the middle of the action; it's expected and assumed that audiences - and this is a high one especially for Americans - that people will know their history, and that isn't often the case. Still, the intense action flows so well throughout "Dunkirk" that many may forgive this, even if they don't always understand what's truly happening.
Thrilling, mesmerizing and powerfully executed, "Dunkirk" is - and I'm always hesitant to say this - the best film of the summer at this point, and certainly one of the best films of the year. A must-see even if you're not a history buff.