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During the infancy of the Second World War in the late spring of 1940, British troops attempted the mass evacuation of over 300,000 troops from the beaches at Dunkirk on the allied French coastline. Desperate to prepare for their country’s own inevitable invasion, the withdrawal of troops was a double edged sword for the British. If the troops stay and fight the good fight, no one will be around to protect the homeland. With invasion and attacks in Engalnd a near certainty, not a lot of man power can be sent to help with the retreat. For over a week, army and navy troops nervously waited on the beach for a small number of military vessels – many of which were sitting ducks for German fighter pilots and U-Boats – that had to be supplemented by commandeered or commissioned small crafts owned by private citizens. It would take nothing short of a miracle to get a majority of these troops home across the 26 mile English Channel safely, but by the end of it, the retreat would be seen as both a disaster and a success in equal measure.

The closest thing renowned filmmaker Christopher Nolan has made to a horror movie, Dunkirk is a taut, technically impressive, and narratively flimsy masterclass in sustained tension. Looking at the evacuation from varied perspectives on the land, sea, and in the air, Dunkirk bounces back and forth between various survival narratives to paint a picture of all encompassing terror. It’s a gorgeous film to behold, and Nolan’s sense of timing and pacing when it comes to capturing the chaos and confusion of the battlefield is spot-on, but it’s hard not to wish for something a bit more meaty and substantive.

There’s not much to say about the characters that populate writer-director Nolan’s look at Dunkirk. They rarely, if ever, say anything about themselves, why they’re fighting, who they are, and what their purpose in life is outside of the war. A pair of low ranking privates (Aneurin Barnard and Fionn Whitehead) race across the beach and push through long lines of troops in hopes of getting to the front of the pier and out of harms way as fast as possible. A lieutenant (Kenneth Branagh) and colonel (James D’Arcy) fret about the haphazard operation and each numerous setback. An aging civilian pleasure boat captain (Mark Rylance), his son (Tom Glynn-Carney), and a keen teenage friend (Barry Keoghan) attempt to navigate the dangerous waters without military assistance to help out the cause, and they pick up a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) adrift at sea on a downed craft. In the skies above, a pair of spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) valiantly fight to keep the dive bombers away from the pier being used for the extraction, despite one of them flying with a broken fuel gauge. The performances are all well delivered across the board, with special note going to Branagh, Rylance, Hardy, and (surprisingly) Harry Styles as a soldier growing increasingly skeptical of some of his fellow troops, but none are meant to stand out or distract from the spectacle at hand.

Nolan cuts swiftly back and forth between his numerous threads to show the enormity of the mission, and slowing down for characters beats and context aren’t part of his M.O. Dunkirk is exactly what it says on the tin: a film that depicts the evacuation of Dunkirk. It’s essentially a 108 minute long action sequence not altogether unlike the most impressive sustained moments of battle in Tora! Tora! Tora! or Saving Private Ryan, but extended to a point of such tension and fear that greater narrative meaning becomes pointless and inessential. All I can really say with certainty about any of these characters is that one of the featured privates is harbouring a secret and Rylance’s unlikely hero has a hidden reason for wanting to help so badly. Neither character trait will be known until late in the film, so viewers will have to be content watching Nolan’s shifting  viewpoint of the situation. The decision to never call Nazi forces anything more than “the enemy” and not showing them on camera is understandable, and to some degree commendable, but the inner drive of these characters beyond a simple will to survive shouldn’t be treated in a similar fashion.

Nolan’s takeaway is easily summed up: war is chaotic, terrifying, and anxious. It’s a survival story on a grand scale that switches between threads like a well paced, visually descriptive dime store novel. That’s not meant as a knock against Dunkirk, but rather a compliment on its primal visual effectiveness. Once again shooting with 70mm IMAX cameras (which are just as adept at shooting widespread action as they are intimate close-ups) and working alongside Interstellar cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, Nolan makes Dunkirk come as close to visual overload as humanly possible. The goal is to create iconic, unforgettable images based around a historically significant moment in military history. A lengthy tracking shot of soldiers racing with a stretcher across an overcrowded beach is evocative and depressing to behold. Dogfights in the air shown from the vantage point of the plane’s wing are dazzling. When a torpedo rips through the hull of a ship attempting to bring soldiers to safety, Nolan is able to mount one of the most nail-biting and claustrophobic sequences in cinematic history. As a technical achievement, Dunkirk is unparalleled, and as an exercise in sustained, relentless tension, Nolan’s film succeeds many times over.

But Nolan’s desire to never stay in one place for too long ultimately hampers the overall lasting impact of Dunkirk. Viewers will know by the time the credits roll that they have seen an impressive, curiously bloodless (which feels like an odd commercial decision rather than an artistic one), and virtuosic war picture. What it lacks is anything outside the image. Nolan has constructed a film based so rigidly in fear and visual acuity that many traces of humanity have been erased and replaced with more bombast. Granted, war zones are inherently devoid of humanity, and one’s enjoyment of Dunkirk comes down to what the viewer expects from a work of cinema. Do you want real emotion based in caring about the humanity of others or do you want non-stop thrills and throat-lumping tension? You will only get one of those here. I can easily see why many people would be quick to call Nolan’s latest a visionary masterpiece, but I remain a bit more skeptical.

Is Dunkirk essential viewing?

My own misgivings aside, I would still recommend it overall. Dunkirk is unquestionably designed and calibrated to be seen in a theatre, on the largest screen, and at the loudest volume possible. Seeing this in any other way, shape, or format would be completely pointless.

Dunkirk opens Friday, July 21, 2017 at Cineplex locations. Check their website for more information.

Dunkirk Trailer