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Sitting ducks in Dunkirk
Photo: Warner Bros.

Directed by Christopher Nolan
Rated PG-13
Rescued 21 July 2017

Dunkirk is virtuoso filmmaking.

Operation: Dynamo

Simply on the strengths of its technical execution alone, Dunkirk is a movie that should be experienced on the largest screen possible (ideally with IMAX 70mm film projection). Indeed, Christopher Nolan has taken his experiments in filming with IMAX cameras, first ventured with select scenes in The Dark Knight (2008), to filming the majority of Dunkirk in the extra-large format.

The payoff is staggering.

This is not the typical summer spectacle packed with wall-to-wall digital effects. This is much more in the vein of David Lean than Michael Bay. The digital aspects are minimal; the end credits indicate their de-emphasis with a mere dozen or so talents associated with digital elements.

Nolan is big on IMAX and he's big on film; roughly 70% of Dunkirk was shot with IMAX cameras and the rest was committed to 65mm film. Nolan holds firm on the notion that presentation quality still matters.

It can't be over-emphasized. The impact of Nolan's truly live action filming is breathtaking. There is a sense of the real that even today's high-res CGI effects simply cannot replicate. The explosions are real. The Supermarine Spitfire fighter planes are real. The physics of the motions and the artfulness of the camerawork can't be equaled in terms of terabytes or even yottabytes.

Call of Duty

But there's much more to marvel at while witnessing Dunkirk. That includes a remarkable cast featuring Nolan favorites Tom Hardy (Inception) and Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins) as well as Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) and Harry Styles (yeah, of One Dimension boy band fame). The Nazis remain virtually unseen and faceless in this account and there isn't one protagonist to cheer for in this ensemble, there's a whole army of them.

Equally important, though, is Nolan's unique storytelling sensibility. He wisely dispenses with a strictly linear timeline and returns to his playful bending of the narrative structure in Memento. Here Nolan divvies up the action between three core storylines; the segments are titled "The Mole (one week)," "The Sea (one day)" and "The Air (one hour)." They are told concurrently, with the action of each coalescing into one climactic set piece of rescuing the soldiers.

The action begins straightaway in the thick of the situation. Some 400,000 Allied troops have found themselves trapped on the shores of Dunkirk, with Nazis circling in the air, at sea and on land. The soldiers are trapped and the British military is strapped. A scant 47 miles (76 kilometers) away from home, and yet the British troops have nowhere to go.

It's time for the civilians to shore up the troops and the call is made for ships of all makes and sizes to save the stranded warriors. Some 1,000 answer the call. And all of this is set against Hans Zimmer's perpetual tick-tock score, which reinforces with every beat that time is of the essence.

A crazy scenario. Nuts. And true. These events at Dunkirk really did happen in the space of one week, May 26-June 4, 1940.

Hope Is a Weapon

In this bummer summer of franchise flameouts, Nolan has reclaimed the movie theatre as a cathedral for storytelling, big ideas, genuine emotions and worthwhile experiences. Dunkirk represents the ultimate in the shared movie-going experience, with a heavy emphasis on experience. Like Spielberg's masterful Omaha Beach scenes in Saving Private Ryan, Dunkirk throws the audience into the thick of the war's madness and horrors.

The dialogue is Spartan at the beginning and humor is relegated to a mere couple chuckles saved for the very end. And it works. Elegantly.

Actions speak louder than words and Nolan lets the dialogue take a back seat as wordless moments pack their punch. One numbed soldier silently dumps his gear and walks into the ocean to create his own watery grave. The moment speaks for itself.

Nolan's movies find a common ground regardless of the fantastical circumstances on the story's surface. Whether it's about a rich guy who dresses up in a bat suit, a tortured soul working with technology that can manipulate the mind or a family broken by a mission to outer space, Nolan finds an emotional core that allows the themes of the story to resonate with a broad range of audiences.

With Dunkirk, the story is about heroism and the many forms it takes. It's also a timely look at patriotism and unity in the face of adversity.

• Originally published at

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