“Dunkirk” Review: Nolan Zips It and Makes a Great WWII Movie

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Directed by Christopher Nolan

Starring: Fionne Whitehead, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy

Christopher Nolan is regarded by many as one of the best directors of the last twenty years but after his last two films even his most ardent fans were getting a little weary of him.

His weaknesses as a director, namely being a bit long-winded in his exposition, overly convoluted in his narrative and too bombastic with his action scenes were beginning to wear thin on his viewers. So when it was announced he would be directing “Dunkirk” a World War II movie, some viewers were understandably skeptical if he could handle a real historical event without beating the viewers over the head with an expositional sledge hammer.

(Take a drink each time Nolan has a philosophical monologue in his movies. #whoops)

Well, it pleases me say that “Dunkirk” is not only a showcase of Nolan’s best qualities as a director but also nullifies many of his weaknesses into easily one of the best movies of the year.

“Dunkirk” tells the story of the land, sea and air events of the famous rescue operation of British and French forces in WWII. The film follows a British soldier, private mariner and pilot as the events of this rescue take place and slowly converge to its climax.

Christopher Nolan has always been a great director when it comes to using tension in a story and using the ticking clock motif, that takes a more literal feel with Hans Zimmer’s excellent score in this film, and “Dunkirk” is no different. 

In films such as “The Prestige,” “Inception” and the climax of “The Dark Knight” there’s always this sense of the plot being pulled like a thin wire, stretching and stressing it out but never breaking. That strain, alongside Nolan’s excellent use of music, creates the tension of the story and creates a real uneasiness for the audience, whether it’s dueling magicians in a frantic arms race to the top, a militarized psyche closing in on the protagonists as they try to infiltrate someone’s mind, or a mad clown getting ready to blow up two ferry ships as man bat tries to find him in time.

This is one of Nolan’s best traits as a director and it’s on full display in “Dunkirk.”

The scale of the British army’s desperation is very apparent from the opening scene onward as the German air force picks off the Brits on the beach who have nowhere to escape. The ticking clock structure of the story plays a huge role here as the audience is shown with each passing minute that times is running out and we become more and more anxious as the film goes on.

(”Alright, time to get out of this dum…aaahhh shit…”)

The sea part of the story feels purposely deliberate as the time it’s taking for them to arrive makes the dread and desperation of the waiting men on the beach more apparent. The characters at sea are going as fast as they can but with the tension of story it always feels like it’s not fast enough as we keep waiting for them to finally arrive and save the men.

The air part of the story, in probably Tom Hardy’s most subdued role ever, uses tension in a different way as the ticking clock is played up more to describe the pilot’s waning fuel and his choice to fly back or continue providing air support. We feel for the pilots as they provide what little firepower they can as each shot and use of fuel is weighed to the greater good of the war.

(”No one cared who I was until I put on the mask…”)

What really helps these three theaters of war though is Nolan completely dialing back all the exposition of the story. Most people already know most everything that needs to be known about WWII and Nolan only needed to show, in this case in a very third-person kind of way, the desperation and triumph of this one singular event. There was no need to have a long-winded, Nolan-esque, monologue about the horrors of war; it’s been done a million times before in other war movies anyways.

Nolan does this by simply showing instead of telling us for a change through the violence of each scene and it works perfectly. We don’t necessarily need to know each of these character’s back-stories, hell only a few of them are clearly named throughout the film, we just needed to see what this event was all about and how it succeeded.


In this way it’s different from other WWII films as well, choosing to really just show what happened rather than go into any detail with the characters. Nolan decided with this film it wasn’t necessary to carve out any back-stories or philosophical points and I can’t imagine it working better otherwise.

Nolan monologues aren’t always bad, but after the last two movies he’s done especially, his trip away from that line of story-telling in “Dunkirk” not only was welcome it helps the story flow tremendously better between the three plotlines.

The rest of the movie showcases Nolan’s other talents as a director as “Dunkirk,” like all his films, has tremendously well done cinematography and usage of practical effects alongside another great film score by Hans Zimmer.

If you can see it in IMAX do it because the film is simply tailor-made for the largest screen possible as the full scale of each scene is exquisitely detailed by the cinematography, especially during aerial shots of real WWII fighter planes performing combat maneuvers.

(”So what’s your master plan with this WWII movie, Mr. Nolan?” “Crashing this plane….”)

The soundtrack by Hans Zimmer, which takes the literal approach with the ticking clock motif (A technique known as the “Shepard-Risset Clissando” btw as detailed in this excellent video) , sustains the tension throughout the film alongside these scenes as everything comes together in near perfect orchestral form. The score plays into a crescendo that never quite hits its zenith and this keeps the viewers on the edge of their seats anticipating the climax at any moment.

“Dunkirk” is an accomplishment by Christopher Nolan on multiple levels as it’s not only a great WWII film but in some ways rectifies Nolan’s previous sins over his last two movies. It shows he’s capable of directing a film’s plot and themes in more than one way and it’s great to see.

No one was worried about whether Nolan could grasp the scale of WWII in Dunkirk, with his history of handling practical effects and cinematography but choosing a simpler way to express characters instead of making them all sound like hyper-intelligent, long-winded philosophers, let’s just say, was a welcome change.

“Dunkirk” is an amazing film that I’m sure will inspire another generation of movie-goers to read up on this period of history in the same way “Saving Private Ryan” did and if nothing else it’s nice to see Nolan back in the win column.

Now, if only I could do something about my own long-windedness as a movie critic…


5 out of 5

Oh, and apparently Harry Styles is in this film too for those who care. He was fine. (Seriously though, when searching for appropriate images on Tumblr for this review he’s in 90% of the GIFs under the hashtag #Dunkirk. Y’all are fucking thirsty.)

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