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Film review: 'Dunkirk'

In 'Dunkirk,' Christopher Nolan highlights human compassion in dire circumstances.

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  • | 10:45 a.m. July 25, 2017
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In director Christopher Nolan's own words, "Dunkirk" is "one of the most courageous stories in human history." And his depiction of it is one of the best war films ever made.

In May of 1940, the war is not going well for the Allies. Nearly 400,000 men have been driven to the beaches of Dunkirk by the Germans with no means by which they could reach the shores of England, just 26 miles across the Channel. Naval ships were unable to rescue them due to shallow waters and lack of moles (piers).

The soldiers became sitting ducks with nowhere to run. It looked as though Britain was on the verge of having to surrender to Hitler.


In their finest moment, British civilians with boats rallied to the cause and set sail for Dunkirk to save their soldiers. Aided by just a few Royal Air Force fighter pilots engaging in dogfights with the Luftwaffe, they managed to save 338,226 desperate servicemen from a certain death. Winston Churchill declared it a "miracle of deliverance." It was a history changing event.

Nolan (who also wrote the script) places his audience in three arenas of action at Dunkirk: on the beach, in the air and on the sea. He also bases his film on firsthand accounts of those who were actually at Dunkirk during the evacuation. These clever choices of POVs engage the audience on such a personal level, it's difficult to control the adrenaline flow.

A noticeable lack of dialog gives the visuals an intensified impact. The action is virtually nonstop and gut-wrenching. And the cinematography is simply magnificent, especially the aerial shots. Scoring by virtuoso Hans Zimmer is almost the main character in this incredible piece of filmmaking. In it lies the soul of those participating in the action.


The group of actors Nolan has assembled is as varied as it is impeccable. In the cockpit, Tom Hardy soars, delivering less than 10 lines, mostly with his eyes, face hidden by his aviator cap. Kenneth Branagh gets all the best lines as the naval commander in charge and Cillian Murphy is heartbreaking as a shell-shocked soldier rescued by civilian Mark Rylance. But it's Fionn Whitehead's breakout performance as a young man experiencing the horrors of war that hits hardest.


Nolan brilliantly brings to the screen a story with which most Americans are unfamiliar. And he does so with such authenticity it's painful to watch, at times. But in the end, it's all about the compassion that human beings display in the most dire of circumstances and the forgiveness that follows.

The film is dedicated to the lives that were impacted at Dunkirk. It is a noble commemoration.  


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