Movie review: Taut, sweeping 'Dunkirk' takes on a different kind of war story

Brad Keefe

If you're Christopher Nolan, what do you do for your next trick? Make a war movie that fits like a classic in the genre and still feels like nothing we've quite seen before.

After his big break out with his second feature film, the mind-bending “Memento,” the British director has proven himself to be in the class of capital-D “Directors” whose films will be highly anticipated based on name alone.

And with “Dunkirk,” he proves himself to be a director who can adeptly jump genres as well.

The World War II thriller is set around a different type of pivotal moment in the war. With Nazi forces surrounding them, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops are trapped near the French city of Dunkirk.

Against diminishing odds, British troops attempt to evacuate, their home so close they can almost see it across the English Channel. Nolan overlaps stories of Dunkirk in a seamless way that also plays with different time frames to great effect.

There's a young British soldier named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) who is still bound by duty but will do almost anything to leave. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) is an older man who lends his private vessel and himself to the evacuation effort. Above it all is Farrier (Tom Hardy), a fighter pilot defending the lives of thousands of troops who are mostly defenseless.

In a taut 107 minutes, Nolan explores a different side of the battlefield. Yes, there's bravery and duty, but there's also fear and desperation in the eyes of these young British soldiers.

And “Dunkirk” is firmly focused on seeing these events through their eyes. In fact, we never see the enemy apart from planes dropping bombs from overhead and gunfire ringing from afar.

This effectively ratchets up the tension that runs through the film. In its peaks, this tension is almost unbearable.

It's also important to know what “Dunkirk” is not. Despite its summer release, it is not a war film that aims to wow with its epic-ness. Nolan rightly shies from turning war into a popcorn spectacle.

The actors, particularly Rylance, are generally fantastic, though the narrative's tight focus in the present does hold back a deeper emotional bond with the characters (not an area Nolan is known for anyway).

But Nolan has made a war movie that provokes both thrills and thought. Consider “Dunkirk” another must-see.


Opens Friday

4 stars out of 5