Dunkirk Is 2017’s First Serious Oscar Powerhouse

Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Kenneth Brannagh, Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, James D’Arcy, Harry Styles and Tom Hardy
Studio: Warner Bros.
Rated: PG
Running Time: 1 Hr, 46 Mins

Summer usually isn’t the time of year you expect to find Oscar bait at the your local multiplex. Sure, some of the summer spectacle might get nominated for visual effects or music, but for the most part the big awards are reserved for fall and winter fare. But don’t be surprised if Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s World War 2 epic based on actual events, bucks that trend this year. It is a more than solid flick that should get some serious Oscar love next February.

The German conquest of France is all but complete and what remains of the French, British and Belgian armies have been driven to the beaches of Dunkirk. More than 400,000 men pray for rescue while German fighter planes kill them from the sky and German bombers and U-boats send every rescue ship to a watery grave. Out of desperation, the British Navy sends a fleet of civilian boats across the English Channel to rescue their stranded army before they can be slaughtered.

Dunkirk takes and interesting narrative approach, telling the story from three different perspectives. Each starts at a different time and place before all three converge during the film’s climax. We see the story unfold through the eyes of a yachting hobbyist (Mark Rylance) helping evacuate the soldiers, a trio of RAF pilots (lead by Tom Hardy) trying to protect the evacuation from the sky and most importantly, from the soldiers and officers facing certain death on the beaches of Dunkirk itself (Kenneth Brannagh, Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles). While it seems a bit disorienting at first, Nolan is able to wrap them all together nicely, using the film’s outcome to bind the various storytelling layers together.

Like Saving Private Ryan, Dunkirk goes out of its way to avoid glamourizing war. It gets up close and personal with the violence and the camera forges an intimate relationship with the carnage. Barrages of bullets cut men down mercilessly and entire bodies are shredded in explosions. Drowning is the most common death waiting the unfortunate on Dunkirk’s beaches and Nolan makes sure the audience can sympathize with the horrifically slow death it promises.

But it isn’t just the violence that Dunkirk examines with a cold, passive scrutiny. Soldiers scream and beg when faced with certain death, they run from danger, they take the boots from the dead before they bury them, they empty their bowels when and where they can and they sometimes turn their backs on friends to save themselves. Brutal decisions are made and the courage of battle-hardened men wavers and breaks. Glory and glamour are replaced by stark, ugly truth.

But there are a few rays of sunshine scattered among Dunkirk’s despairing reality. Soldiers making way so the wounded can evacuate first, a man opening a hatch for those trapped below just before he jumps a sinking, burning ship, an admiral demanding that everyone be evacuated and not just his countrymen. While Dunkirk doesn’t shy away from human failing during war (with war being Humanity’s greatest failure of all), it shows that even in the harshest garden, some shreds of genuine humanity can still reach the sun.

There are no standout performances to speak of, but that isn’t a criticism of the acting so much as it’s a compliment. On the contrary, every one brings their A game and no one really stands out because they’re all performing on the same level. Like the characters they portray, everyone has a job to do and they do it to the fullest of their abilities. Nolan deserves plenty of credit for coaxing such complimentary performances out of his cast. But the performances aren’t the only tool Nolan has at his disposal.

Everything from the soundtrack (which obediently soars and plunges at precisely the right moments) to the cinematography all allows Nolan to recreate a strikingly claustrophobic atmosphere. You may never believe that it could feel so tough to breathe on the deck of a ship beneath the open sky. But there are times Dunkirk achieves just that. Combined with the attention the film pays to the fashion, speech and details of every day life of 1940’s Britain, there are moments Dunkirk literally takes you out of the present and transports you decades into the past and halfway across the world.

Could you ask anything more of any film, summer blockbuster or not?