Dunkirk, rated PG-13
Starring Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles
Austin Family Critical Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Austin Family Family-Friendly Rating: 4 of 5 stars
“It’s all about time.” That’s the tagline for one of the year’s best films, David Lowery’s A Ghost Story – but it could also easily be the tagline for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a war movie so relentlessly tense and entertaining that it immediately enters the pantheon of great combat films. There’s a ticking clock in this film from the very beginning – and, in many ways, time becomes a crucial element of how we experience the picture. Dunkirk is divided up into three sections, all of which are intercut absolutely flawlessly together, and each has its own unique time structure.
The film uses this non-linear structure to show the various forces at work to save the thousands of soldiers stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, who are retreating from the Nazis in 1940. It’s not quite clear until the very end why the differing time structure is so effective, but needless to say it gives an added urgency and freshness to the war movie genre. As a friend of mine accurately put it, Nolan takes a true-life war story and makes it into a high-concept film, thematically uniting Dunkirk with his other work.
Tom Hardy, as a fighter pilot, proves once again that he’s one of the finest actors out there – his emotive eyes do so much storytelling in this film. A brilliant cast – including Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy and Kenneth Branagh – add gravitas to the proceedings, but more than anything, it’s Nolan’s striking vision that keeps you glued to the screen. There are images in this film that are as memorable as any the director has given us – and that’s coming from someone who adores all of his work, particularly Memento (2001), The Dark Knight (2008), Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014).
It’s also such an emotional, hopeful movie – there’s a profoundly moving moment where a character withholds a tragic death to a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) to help him survive and keep going.
More than anything, Nolan helps us experience an event fully and memorably. He has always been a master of momentum, world-building and big ideas, but he’s perhaps never achieved such a gut-wrenching evocation of time and place, of geography and perspective. If there is justice in this world, he’ll finally receive an overdue Best Director nomination at this year’s Academy Awards. And if he does, it won’t be a career achievement award – it will be honoring one of his very best films.
The Bullock Museum’s IMAX Theatre is showing Dunkirk in large-format IMAX, but an even better opportunity to see the richness of Nolan’s vision is in the 70MM print at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz. Although Dunkirk is completely harrowing, it’s not quite as violent as you might expect. I think it’s appropriate for anyone over the age of 10 – particularly considering what a fine historical documentation it is of a major moment in history.
Jack Kyser is a graduate of Austin High School and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.