Published on July 21st, 2017 | by Dan Nicholls



The movie industry giving us less reason to go to the theatre, but movies like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk have the power to bring us back.

Few film directors can lay claim to having a marquee-level drawing power with each picture. Indeed, masters like Spielberg and Scorsese continue to make an impact with each passing decade even when their famous talents’ stars tend to fade. If it wasn’t clear by Inception that Christopher Nolan is a name that you can sell above a title then Dunkirk absolutely closes the case. It’s a masterful specimen of pure filmmaking at its finest and a sterling example of a modern-day Hollywood studio production. It’s also one of the best films so far this year.

On the French shores of Dunkirk in 1940, almost 400,000 troops were left stranded with an advancing enemy ahead of them and hellfire from the skies at their backs. To give you nearly complete coverage of the whole ordeal, Dunkirk plays out with viewpoints from three main sections: “The Mole” (a long pier used to load people onto ships in shallow waters), “The Sea”, and “The Air”. Humble fishermen and sailing enthusiasts from England embark across 26 miles of water to ferry survivors to safety while dogfighters above wage a dizzying battle of their own.

If there were a notable drawback to Dunkirk it would be that its characters aren’t especially integral to the proceedings. The casting, however, is off the hook: there isn’t a standout star in the roster in service of an ensemble working in harmony with the other many moving parts. Kenneth Branagh is a face everyone can recognize (as a captain standing helpless as his men are enveloped in chaos) as is Tom Hardy as a fearless fighter pilot. Covered in a mask for the majority of his screen time, Hardy proves using only his two eyes that he is without contention one of the finest actors working today.

Much has been made of the fact that One Direction pop sensation Harry Styles makes his major motion picture debut in a small part. Before going into the movie I honestly had no idea what this guy looked like. I was aware of who he was, sure, but I couldn’t pick him out of a crowd. After referencing Google when the movie was over, I can confirm that he does in fact give a very strong performance. As with his other screenmates, you might not remember their characters’ names when it’s all over and done with but they’re still undeniably affecting during the main course.

The level of technical proficiency is astounding. From picture editing to costume design and every tiny detail in between, the craft on display in Dunkirk couldn’t be elevated any higher. There is no way it’s getting overlooked when it comes time for Oscar nominations in practically every below-the-line department.

Making a movie like Dunkirk is a massive undertaking. While the brilliant mind of Christopher Nolan is guiding with his vision, it would be unfair to call this “a film by Christopher Nolan.” This is “a film by every single damn person who worked on it in any capacity.” That’s true of any movie but it’s especially fitting here.

It should hopefully go without saying that Dunkirk should be experienced on the biggest screen possible. Roughly 75% of the film was shot using IMAX cameras, a match made in heaven between a movie and its format if ever there was one. See it big and loud – if you’re lucky enough to have the chance to see it in a true IMAX presentation you’d be a damned fool to pass the opportunity up.

The film’s sound design is perhaps its most evocative tool, as your ears nearly reach the point of rock-show-ringing by the end of it all. A particularly intense sequence involving some soldiers lying low in a schooner’s cabin nearly kills you with each potent gunshot. Dunkirk is a workout for your heart and your Fitbit should count it as cardio.

One would be remiss to talk about Dunkirk and not mention Hans Zimmer’s score that serves as a metronome for the action on screen. Its ticking clock beat is omnipresent in almost every single scene and sets a pace that keeps your eyes from blinking. The film feels like it’s just one single, long sequence.

The screenplay is more than serviceable but at the end of the day Dunkirk is first and foremost a directorial showcase for Nolan’s visual gifts with the cinematic language. Two of the biggest points made by detractors of the writer-director’s talents include his often overindulgence in running time and wooden expository dialogue. Both those gripes are silenced by default with the largely dialogue-free screenplay and a mercifully adequate 105-minute length.

The production of Dunkirk is authentic and utilizes practical special effects over CGI in every humanly possible instance. You can feel the realness of it all, each wave feels like it’s pulling you under and every airplane sounds like it’s right on top of your head.

Dunkirk is unequivocally recommended and encouraged to experience in a theater. If you wait to catch this on an airplane you’re simply doing it 100% wrong. This is a film, like Gravity and Avatar before it, which demands and rewards the cost for the finest ticket in town. Its ultimate visceral and emotional staying power will still play well enough at home because it’s a damn great movie, regardless of how you see it. But this is the type of adult studio blockbuster we need to see more of. Dunkirk is not to be missed.

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is a Vancouver-based, lifelong movie geek who's been a projectionist, critic, director, (accidental) actor, and writer in the industry since E.T. phoned home. @dannicholls

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