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“Dunkirk” Is a Movie Without Any Characters, But That’s What Makes It Awesome

The English war machine is the film's protagonist.

There are plenty of bombs and rifle-fire and bulletholes and casualties, but for a war movie, there is very little actual fighting that goes on in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk.

When the film opens, we're immediately dropped into the abandoned beachside town of Dunkirk, France, where bullets are whizzing at dehydrated soldiers and propaganda fliers are raining down. The idea that our protagonist, the English war machine, could face down the Germans and triumph in a conventional battle is ludicrous. The only sliver of hope is evacuation. So, evacuate to where? The grunts are sitting ducks for dive bombers on the beach, and beyond that is miles of sea where enemy planes standby to strafe and U-boats lurk shark-like below the surface.

You may have noticed I've said nothing of the characters in this film. That's because there aren't any, really. We do get to follow a few soldiers and pilots and civilians at sea, but they're more like stand-ins for the other 400,000 like them marooned on the beach or assisting in the rescue effort. That's fine, though. This movie doesn't really need characters, and wasting time on distracting details like what's waiting at home for these boys would only slow down the headlong pacing of the operation, which is one of the film's major successes.

The star of the show is cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, whose serene photography provides a necessary counterbalance to the breathless editing. I don't think this film will win Best Picture at next year's Oscars, but it's a shoo-in a handful of technical nominations.

CRITIC'S RATING: 4/4 stars.

PG-13. Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, City Center, Clackamas, Division, Eastport, Fox Tower, Hollywood, Lloyd, St. Johns Twin Cinema & Pub, Tigard, Vancouver