Dunkirk Review: We Shall Go On To The End

Image: Warner Bros.

For his latest film, Christopher Nolan reaches beyond his usual fare of science fiction and gritty fantasy for a film set firmly in the realities of World War II. But don’t let the change turn you away, because Dunkirk represents much of the very best work of Nolan, composer Hans Zimmer, and everybody else involved. Dunkirk is an impeccable triumph.

Christopher Nolan has certain skills as a great modern filmmaker. Besides having created a unique, dramatic, almost noir-like visual style, he’s also embraced the creative scoring of frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer, and told complex stories that innovate plot structure and follow emotional arcs. Dunkirk displays a refining of nearly every signature skill he’s displayed since he broke onto the movie scene in 2000’s Memento.

But instead of fabricating a wholly fresh plot to build his movie around, this time Nolan places new character-based fiction on top of the background of historical fact. Based on the true story of the mass evacuation of stranded British troops in the French city of Dunkirk in 1940, Nolan aims to deliver a definitive yet unique take on the legendary British military chapter of World War II.

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For some brief context, as the powerful forces of Nazi Germany pushed back enemy troops through France, the British forces were eventually amassed with their backs to the sea on the beaches of Dunkirk. They had nowhere further to retreat to, and only time itself to keep the Nazi forces from bearing down on them. They needed an escape, and what eventually took place was a miracle that no one expected, and truly marked the trajectory for the remaining years of the war.

It’s a story that isn’t as well-known in America as many other chapters from WWII, but it’s an immensely important one. Had the German forces been able to wipe out the hundreds of thousands of British troops in Dunkirk, there may have been no stopping Hitler from completely dominating Europe. So this brief but pivotal chapter is told in harrowing fashion by Christopher Nolan, a man becoming more and more a modern master of the medium of film.

Image: Warner Bros.

This rescue of British forces from Dunkirk involved parties on the land, on the sea and in the air. Some were more lengthily engaged than others, and Nolan conveys this variance in engagement through a unique plot format that only he could have pulled off this way. Nolan has a history of doing creative and interesting things with plot and timing, like the narrative ordering of Memento, and the layered altering of time in Inception and Interstellar. In Dunkirk, each different level of involvement in the event covers a different span of time, running at different rates. At first these different plot strands are very separate, but as the movie goes on, the rate at which these stories are told progress faster, and all separate strands begin to converge.

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Image: Warner Bros.

It’s difficult to explain, but it needs to be seen. The plot format is not only different and fascinating, but also serves the tension of the overall event perfectly. The happenings at Dunkirk were an example of escalating tension, and the way Nolan tells this story serves to slowly, continually build and build on through to the stunning finale.

Hans Zimmer’s score also perfectly ties into this. Utilizing the clicking sound of a clock running, as well as various other ambient sound effects and affecting musical motifs, Zimmer’s soundscape is an essential component to why this film works as well as it does. Its slowly mounting sense of pressure is felt by the audience immeasurably more thanks to Zimmer’s work here.

Hans Zimmer – The Classics – January 2017

As noted earlier, while this is based on a true event, it’s told through small character showcases that give us a lens with which to view each respective side of the conflict. These stories are emotionally captivating and interesting, but far different than the complex plotting that Nolan’s work has become known for. Told much more visually and through very little dialogue, we get individual character journeys that help us understand and appreciate the context and gravity of every facet of the Dunkirk event. A stellar cast is assembled to do this, from Nolan mainstays like Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy, to new faces like Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Fionn Whitehead and yes, even Harry Styles (who does a great, subtle job here).

Image: Warner Bros.

While these character stories connect us more personally with the event, there isn’t as much emotional investment in each of them as there is with Dom in Inception, or Cooper in Interstellar. Some have leveled that as a criticism against the movie, but I don’t believe that’s fair, since that’s clearly not the type of story Nolan wanted to tell here. It may stand as a personal preference for some viewers, but he clearly didn’t set out to tell a singular, emotional arc throughout this movie, but to convey the mood of an event through this brief glimpse of a moment in time and the varied ensemble involved.

Get the magnificent Dunkirk soundtrack by Hans Zimmer

On a technical level, this film again represents a refinement and evolution for everything Nolan has done up through now. Ever the IMAX enthusiast, Nolan used the massive 70mm IMAX cameras to film most of the movie natively, even on the wings of planes and the vast beaches themselves. This dedication to a visual message, and the intensity with which the sound is mixed with those visuals, make this a technical masterwork on every level.



Giving gravity and humanity to a riveting and important historical event, Christopher Nolan and company craft an inventive, visceral, technically flawless and emotionally harrowing piece of film. Rarely has such an effective sense of mounting dread at an ominous yet rarely-seen enemy been so well communicated in cinema. I personally adore a movie with slowly-building tension that leads to a worthy climax, and the work Nolan accomplishes here is among the most excellent he’s ever done.

Image: Warner Bros.

+ Stunning cinematography that captures the scope and mood of the events

+ Sound and music are combined for a remarkable soundtrack that elevates the experience

+ A mood of continual, unrelenting tension is effectively delivered

+ Divergent, personal plot threads are woven together masterfully and with unique innovation

– Less emotionally involved than other war movies/Nolan movies, which may turn off some

What did you think of Dunkirk, or Christopher Nolan, or World War II? Leave a comment below.

Seth Zielinski loves chronoplay, ominously looming threats, and just great movies. He’s also known to like bad ones too. Follow him on Twitter!

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1 Comment

  1. I really enjoyed this movie. I thought that, by far, this was Nolan’s most boring film, but I don’t mean that as a criticism. Typically I find that Nolan movies, which I tend to like, dangle so many threads in front of you that it takes a lot of effort to keep up. There’s none of that ‘work’ to be seen here. Even with the 3 separate threads, the movie ends up being one of Nolan’s most linear (outside of his Batman series).

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