It’s unusual to talk about a possible Oscar contender in the middle of July. But when it comes to the prospects of Christopher Nolan’s latest feature, the World War II film Dunkirk, not only is it a contender, it may be a frontrunner. There is still nearly half a year left, and plenty of movies yet to be released, but right now I’ll go ahead a revel in what is the writer-director-producer’s best and most accessible work.

Dunkirk is Nolan’s first feature based on true events, so when he announced his intent to re-create one of the history’s most daring rescues there was plenty of curiosity which came with it. Dunkirk is the story of the evacuation of some 400,000 soldiers who were trapped on the shores of France. British forces were unwitting sitting ducks, enduring enemy aerial attacks and left to wonder of their fates as confusion and terror set in. Nolan presented his feature as three separate but interwoven stories. Much of Dunkirk’s timeline is nonlinear, while part of what makes this story compelling are the different perspectives on display. Shooting this way means there is no centralized character, although many are recurring (while there can be an argument that actor Fionn Whitehead, as Tommy, is the film’s lead).

Speaking of characters, the actors playing them are mostly unknowns but there are a litany of recognizable faces. Viewers should be able to spot Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, James D’Arcy, Cillian Murphy and Harry Styles. Harder to spot is Michael Caine, but that’s because he’s not physically present and provides just his voice.

What sets Dunkirk apart from all the other big budget blockbusters is the absence of a typical three-act narrative (Nolan went with a triptych structure), the aforementioned lack of a non-central character, no inclusion of anything American, and the simple fact the Dunkirk evacuation is a massive military failure. In addition, there is little dialogue (and a portion of that dialogue is almost indecipherable, possibly Dunkirk’s only and glaring drawback), so combined with the revolving door of characters means there is no backstory. The final product plays out like a huge 106-minute third act – all the excitement that’s usually saved for the end of a movie is stretched out to fill up this entire feature. Viewers can tell Nolan’s only focus is the event, and his primary concern is tackling one clear thought – will they get out of this? Nolan relied heavily on sight and sound to answer that question, and that’s where his strengths as a filmmaker lie.

If nothing else, Dunkirk is a technical achievement. With Nolan’s parameters set, he relied on cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema to fill the screen and Hans Zimmer to fill the air. Hoytema teamed with Nolan to make Interstellar, and while that feature looked good, visual sumptuousness is hard to convey with outer space as the backdrop. Hoytema was able to showcase is sharp eye, and Dunkirk is visually stunning as a result. And with plenty of scenes underwater and in the skies, both elements pose unique filming challenges. But Nolan and Hoytema surpassed those obstacles and in turn were able generate high tension and drama in every scene.

Zimmer has worked with Nolan many times and he’s composed powerful music for Interstellar, the Dark Knight trilogy and Inception. Zimmer again outdoes himself, allowing his music to convey confusion, uncertainty and an ample amount of dread.

It’s these aspects which allow Dunkirk to be more than an exemplary example of fine technical work. It’s the precision of these technical acts which give Nolan’s latest a wide range of emotions. It breathes life into a potential documentary and turns it into a human story. All of this further supports the notion that Nolan is more of an architect, and what his films may lack in artistry is more than made up for with simplicity, precision and raw emotion.

In short, Dunkirk is a masterpiece. Nolan’s interpretation of war films bears his signature filmmaking style, but his filmmaking experience is put to work and allows his latest to work on many levels. Nolan went back in time by shooting in 70mm (following in the footsteps of Quentin Tarantino and his last offering, The Hateful Eight), a rarity these days. With 70mm being much bigger in scope, Dunkirk is meant to be seen on the biggest screen you can find. From that perspective it’s a must see in theaters, but afterwards you’ll realize why it’s one of the year’s best films and why there is no substitute for the cinematic experience.

5 stars out of 5


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