Grade: A-
2017, 106 min., Color
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language
Aspect ratio: 2.21:1 and 1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Amazon link

Dunkirk, a small northern coastal city in France, is historically famous for a massive WWII evacuation in May 1940, when Hitler’s armies surrounded the French and the British Expeditionary Force and pinned them against the sea. With snipers firing and the German Luftwaffe strafing and bombing the area and any vessel that tried to load soldiers—hospital ships included—the Allied military brass decided they needed to save many of the larger ships for the next impending battle. That set up what Winston Churchill later called “The Miracle of Dunkirk,” when more than 100,000 French and British soldiers were rescued by a hodgepodge fleet that included private civilian launches, all acting on the prime minister’s order that ships large and small should go to Dunkirk to rescue the besieged soldiers.

As a film, Dunkirk is one of the year’s best—if you don’t mind minimally plotted films that feel vaguely like fly-on-the-wall documentaries. It may also be the ultimate anti-war movie, because it feels more like a disaster film than the typical war movie. That’s because director Christopher Nolan (Intersteller, Memento) employs minimal dialogue and in media res camerawork to plunk the viewer right into the thick of things so you don’t feel as is you’re watching a movie about war—you feel like you’re experiencing it: the chaos of war and the reactive drive to escape it. The narrative thrust isn’t heroism, or the fight-or-flight impulse, or the need to defeat an enemy. It’s escape, and the bombs and bullets might as well be lava pouring from an active volcano, or a fire threatening to destroy a skyscraper, or a floundering cruise ship taking on water in the middle of the Atlantic. War, in Nolan’s hands, isn’t political. It’s a disaster to survive.

Dunkirk, rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language, tells the story of the evacuation from the ground, the air, and the sea. Nolan is known for his fragmented storytelling, and that approach works well here, adding to the feeling of chaos. But there are narrative threads, the most interesting of which involves a Weymouth, England resident who responds to Churchill’s call for help and crosses the Channel in his tiny boat with his son and his stowaway young friend. Another narrative touchstone is the pier at Dunkirk, where officers try to facilitate an orderly evacuation and a pair of apparent desserters try to sneak head in the queue. We also see the point of view of pilots who try to provide air support.

As I said, it’s something to experience, and the level of realism is astounding. Nolan employed period aircraft and boats that were actually used in the evacuation, and for the most part the director stayed away from stars in order to feature characters that could support the film’s impressionistic realism. The response at the turnstiles has been impressive. With a $525 worldwide gross, Dunkirk is now the highest grossing WWII film ever made.

All that said, Dunkirk won’t be for everyone because it is such an unconventional war movie. But families with teenage sons might want to watch the film together, because it truly does provide an authentic view of war that’s far less glamorous than even recent anti-war message films like Hacksaw Ridge.

Language: Fewer than a handful of F-bombs and little else, given the constant cacophony of war sounds that command our attention
Sex: None
Violence: People are wounded or die, but their injuries and deaths are not spectacular and the blood and explosions aren’t gratuitously exploited; somehow Nolan manages to convey war realistically without ratcheting up the gruesomeness
Adult situations: The entire movie is one intense experience to be seen, heard, and felt
Takeaway: Nolan, who also wrote the script, is a genius who isn’t afraid to take chances