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Christopher Nolan’s great escape – ‘Dunkirk’

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Writer-director’s latest a compelling war story based on true events

There are few filmmakers currently working who have the talent, drive and commercial track record to make whatever movies they want. These are the writer-directors who have the power to draw massive studio support and even more massive budgets to original, non-franchise properties, projects that don’t feature superheroes and/or a number in the title.

One could argue that of those few, none are more currently prominent than Christopher Nolan. And none wield that carte blanche power as freely as he does; his indie roots are the foundation of even the biggest of his blockbusters.

Nolan’s latest film – his 10th feature – is “Dunkirk,” based on the real-life World War II evacuation of hundreds of thousands of British soldiers from a French beach in 1940. With German forces closing in, the English had to muster everything they had – air and naval forces and even civilian assistance – to execute the largest-scale (and one of the most strategically important) military retreats in history.

But while this is Nolan’s first foray into nonfiction historical drama, that certainly doesn’t mean that the filmmaker’s usual array of aesthetic quirks and narrative timeline flexibility are absent. Quite the contrary, the film has his fingerprints all over it – and the result is one of the best war movies of the 21st century.

“Dunkirk” tells three stories in parallel, each operating on the same timeline, but on a different scale. There’s “The Mole,” which follows the soldiers on the beach awaiting evacuation. “The Sea” is the tale of one of the group of civilians recruited into the rescue effort. And “The Air” flies alongside the RAF fighter pilots tasked with providing air support to the rescuers.

“The Mole” – which takes place over the course of a week – focuses on Tommy (Fionn Whitehead, TV’s “Him”), a young soldier who we meet just as German soldiers locate him and his squad. Within seconds, he’s fleeing gunfire and trying desperately to make his way to the beach. When he arrives, he meets up with a quiet soldier named Gibson (Aneurin Barnard, “Bitter Harvest”); the two immediately start trying to find a way onto a boat home.

“The Sea” – which unfolds in one day – introduces us to Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance, “The BFG”). British civilians are being asked to join the rescue effort; Dawson, his son Roger (Tom Glynn-Carney, TV’s “The Last Post”) and Roger’s friend George (Barry Keoghan, “Trespass Against Us”) immediately take Dawson’s boat – named Moonstone – and head across the Channel to try and contribute to the cause.

“The Air” – the entirety of which happens in a single hour – primarily follows fighter pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy, TV’s “Taboo”). Farrier and his mates are led by squadron leader Collins (Jack Lowden, “Denial”); their mission is to find and shoot down any and all enemy aircraft – especially the bombers that are targeting the soldier-laden ships that are in the process of evacuating.

Each of these narratives plays out on its own terms, though there are moments of overlap that tie them all together – there are points of direct intersection between the timeframes that create significant moments in the process. Through it all, we bear witness to the pliable nature of heroism as these men strive to strike the balance between selfishness and selflessness, to be a savior AND a survivor.

“Dunkirk” tells a story that is deeply familiar to the British, but that is relatively unknown here in the United States. It’s a World War II perspective of which Americans likely aren’t aware – and that lack of familiarity might well lend itself to a more engaging experience. It’s a war story we haven’t seen on-screen; that, plus the presence of a master like Nolan at the helm, will certainly intrigue moviegoers.

It’s just remarkable.

The interweaving of the timeframes is beautifully done, with each story getting its own space while still maintaining a connection to the whole. No one captures a stunning shot like Nolan does; “Dunkirk” is rife with those striking wide shots so detailed as to feel like close-ups. The time juggling might initially feel tough to follow, but the adjustment period is brief. And again – the pictures Nolan gives you are just so incredibly striking. Land, sea, air – it’s all incredible to look at.

“Dunkirk” has its share of exceptional performances as well. Whitehead plays Tommy with a combination of vulnerable desperation and indefatigable will; his moments of courage and of cowardice render him heartbreakingly human. Rylance is awesome as usual; in his hands, Mr. Dawson is the embodiment of the British spirit, an anthropomorphized stiff upper lip. “Keep calm and carry on” is inscribed on his DNA. And Hardy gives a remarkable performance; despite having his face covered the majority of the time, he manages to be incredibly expressive as a man who, despite being presented with numerous outs, simply continues pushing forward with his mission.

There are a LOT of quality supporting turns here, too. Everyone mentioned thus far is strong. Kenneth Branagh quietly owns the screen every time he’s on it as Commander Bolton. Cillian Murphy gives a compelling performance as an unnamed, shell-shocked soldier. And the work of former One Direction boy-bander Harry Styles belies his inexperience; he’s solid.

“Dunkirk” is an intense look at an unfamiliar – at least to American audiences – moment, an account of one of the most incredible events in the history of war. It is a powerful story powerfully told. And it is further proof that the movie world’s faith in Christopher Nolan is well-founded. One of the best of the summer.

[5 out of 5] 

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