* * * 1/2 (out of four)
Just how committed to authenticity is Christopher Nolan?
Well, the writer-director’s latest film, “Dunkirk,” features no less than 12 of the original boats actually used in the evacuation nearly eight decades ago.
If you’re tired of big-budget actioners with too much digital imagery, “Dunkirk” is for you. Ditto if you’re interested in World War II. And suspense. And heroism. And a flair for the intimate meshed with the epic.
Nolan’s film is a dazzlingly choreographed tale of the 1940 “miracle at Dunkirk,” when 338,000 Allied soldiers were rescued from coastal France as Nazi troops closed in — while the merciless Luftwaffe rained down bombs and bullets from the sky.
Employing some of the multi-tiered plotting that worked so well in “Inception,” Nolan hangs his narrative on three different stories — on land, at sea and in the air — which take place, respectively, over the course of a week, a day and an hour.
Relative newcomer Fionn Whitehead plays a British soldier struggling over crowded docks and beaches; the marvelous Mark Rylance (“BFG,” “Bridge of Spies”) plays a civilian skipper who — like hundreds of homeland Brits in real life — steers his unimposing pleasure craft into hostile territory to bring out as many lads as he can; Tom Hardy plays an RAF pilot combating the German planes that picked off ships and men with unnerving regularity.
The solid cast also includes Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy and pop star Harry Styles. Yet the real star here is the special effects — if you can call them that.
Nolan’s reputation for so-called practical effects — as opposed to computer-generated images — is blazingly apparent, with awe-inspiring World War II-era ships and planes, many of which must have been built for this film. The sweeping vistas peopled by thousands of troops are hauntingly effective; Nolan’s costumers certainly deserve overtime pay — and maybe an Oscar nomination too.
That goes double for editor Lee Smith, whose brilliant work on “Inception” didn’t even garner a nom in 2010. The score by Hans Zimmer is likewise terrific — the more so because you scarcely notice it.
“Dunkirk’s” alternating plotline doesn’t always work; it’s sometimes tough to match up the different timelines. And the script fails to clarify why this evacuation was so crucial. (To wit: A Nazi capture of so many Allied soldiers would have changed the course of that war.)
Moreover, I was alarmed by the stress on nasty in-fighting among Allied troops. There was nothing like that in Walter Lord’s “Miracle at Dunkirk,” which I read in preparation for this film. But I’m going to assume Nolan did his homework, as is readily apparent elsewhere in the film. (I loved his inclusion of the jerry-rigged jetty made from abandoned trucks; and for the record, there were plenty of soldiers whose odyssey was just as star-crossed as that of Whitehead’s character; and yes, Spitfires really can do what Hardy’s plane manages in the closing minutes — up to 15 miles, in some cases.)
“Dunkirk” isn’t perfect, but it climbs right in among the year’s best, bringing worthwhile attention to an oft-overlooked historical moment.
And as for the tidbit that began this review: It pays to sit through the closing credits.