Greg Eichelberger reviews 'Dunkirk' (2017)

Greg Eichelberger
Staff Writer

Greg Eichelberger reviews "Dunkirk" (2017)

With fairly five current films recording Rotten Tomatoes positive review consensuses of 90 percent or more (including "Wonder Woman," "The Big Sick," "Spiderman: Homecoming," "War For the Planet Of the Apes" and "Baby Driver," plus — inexplicably — the rancid comedy, "Girls Night Out" with 89 percent), so, when director Christopher Nolan's first true life historical drama receives a rating of 92, one might be a little suspect. Fear not, howeve, unlike most of these other films, this is a ranking that truly deserves its number.
In September 1939, days after the German army blitzkrieged across Poland from the west (while the Soviets attacked from the east — few remember THAT fact), Great Britain and France, allies in the First World War, honored their commitment to Poland by declaring war on the National Socialist government. The Germans then turned west conquering in succession, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Low Countries and Luxembourg, each time pushing past the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) with relative ease.
The rapidly-advancing Teutons then turned their attention to their sworn enemies, France, soon overrunning that country and pushing remnants of the French forces and the BEF to the coastal town of Dunkirk.
There, while the Nazis pounded the trapped men and ships, inflicting death and injury on thousands of personnel and threatening to decimate most of the army there on the beaches. It's here that - either through Divine Providence or just plain good luck - a fleet of private yachts, sailboats and other small craft crossed the English Channel and rescued a great deal of the retreating forces (including many Frenchmen).
Consequently, many of these troops were available to continuing fighting the Germans in North Africa, finally turning the tables and going on the offense in the Italian Peninsula in 1943 and Fortress Europe a year later.
Like the recent Mel Gibson World War II epic, "Hacksaw Ridge," there is nothing glorious or glamorous about this story as Nolan (the "Bat-Man" trilogy," "Memento," "Inception") creates a sucked dry, no-frills picture that builds slowly over the film's unusually short running time (just 107 minutes).
Unlike Gibson's feature (and, to a certain extent, other war epics such as "Saving Private Ryan," "Paths Of Glory" and "Braveheart," among others), though, there is a certain arms length stand-offness that lacks those movies' vivid emotional impacts. Not to say that is a fatal flaw, after all few younger people have even heard of the saga of Dunkirk (and even less knew the story of Desmond Doss before that movie, either).
The dread here is nevertheless real and mostly unending — as it was in the real event — with the Luftwaffe constantly bombing anything that moves, U (Undersee) boats sinking almost everything on the water and land troops pushing in, as well. And as an audience, we are right in the middle of the action: dogfights between Spitfires and Messerschmidts and Heinkel bombers, foundering vessels and terrifying moments where shells explode and bullets are fired in the midst of thousands of unfortunate soldiers.
Another tactic Nolan uses is to intersperse three plotlines (the air battles, the men on the beach and the civilian boaters coming to the rescue), plus he spreads the wealth, as no one actor dominates as many fresh-faced, little-known thespians (such as Aneirin Barnard, Jack Lowden and Harry Styles — fresh from the musical group, One Direction) trading screen time with veteran Academy Award winners and/or nominees such as Mark Rylance ("Bridge Of Spies"), Kenneth Branagh ("Henry V," the upcoming remake of "Murder On the Orient Express"), Tom Hardy ("The Revenant," "London Road") and Cilian Murphy ("Breakfast On Pluto,"Batman Begins").
With all of this going on, it may be easy for viewers to lose focus, but the gripping, intriguing true story and solid performances, especially from Rylance, who (like in his Oscar-winning performance) exercises a unique economy of effort and does more with a glance or grimace than most do with pages of dialogue. Branagh plays the stoic British sea captain with the typically appropriate stiff upper lip, while Hardy's RAF pilot has his face covered most of the time except for the movie's conclusion, but brings a sturdy realism to the role.
Gritty and unrelenting, despite an absence of the critical lump-in-the-throat factor, "Dunkirk" is a well-done and superbly-crafted technical production.
Grade: B+