Conventional war movies most often have an unerring story to tell, one that is usually restricted by the often-well-chronicled account left by military historians and those who survived the ordeal. But, in the moment, the details of a monumental action, such as the evacuation under fire of thousands of Allied servicemen from Dunkirk back home to England, can get fuzzy. It is that element of fuzziness that director Christopher Nolan mines to great advantage for his monumental film, “Dunkirk.”
To those unfamiliar with the actual incident, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops — that hoped to stop the German advance across Europe — became trapped by the Nazis in northern France from May 26 until June 4, 1940. This was more than a year before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that launched the United States’ involvement in World War II. The German army managed to literally surround the retreating Allies and, if allowed to close the noose, might have become unstoppable.
As Nolan’s film opens, we see a man running through the streets of Dunkirk. Soon, after gunfire erupts and among the few men he’s with, the young man, whom we’ll know as Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), is the only one who makes it to the beach alive. What he finds are thousands of other men standing in orderly lines, waiting to be evacuated. The trouble is, only the commanding officers know the truth about when or if the ships will come.
In the meantime, a squadron of fighter planes has been launched to give the men air cover from German Luftwaffe. And, upon the sea, an older man and his sons set out from England in a small pleasure boat straight into war.
Each of these sections are labeled “The Mole” (for the stone jetty along the beach), “The Sea” (for the man and his sons in the small boat) and “The Air” (for the fighter pilots and their desperate mission).
Nolan’s film, partly due to an excellent score, injects each sequence, each moment with gut-wrenching tension. Even if nothing explicit seems to be happening on screen, it’s the knowledge that a horrifying fate is looming closer and closer that infuses every frame with suspense. Nolan doesn’t even have to show German soldiers as a threatening presence. We just know they’re out there.
Nolan also disentangles the timeline, placing some sections before others, allowing us to see a different perspective of others, while also showing how some things happened to be the way they are when we first enter their space. It may be a little confusing at first, coming from the director who brought us “Memento” (2000), but when the pieces fall into place, it’s actually quite satisfying.
Unlike large-scale war “battles,” this movie leads up to the violence with impending horror so when they happen, the impact is a gut punch. It’s not like “Saving Private Ryan” in that respect, although it is at times just as graphic. This movie allows us to feel the despair that heroes who have been forced to run feel. Of course, it is not until much later that we begin to understand just how important this battle became to the British people and why it helped shape what was to come.
This has rightfully been called Nolan’s greatest film. On that, I must wholeheartedly agree.
Although, we’ll be seeing a digital version in Taos, the original movie was shot on 70 mm film.
“Dunkirk” is rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language.
It is screening daily at Mitchell Storyteller 7 Theatres, 110 Old Talpa Cañón Road. For show times, tickets and additional information, call (575) 751-4245 or visit storyteller7.com.
Also showing in Taos
The following were compiled from press materials.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material and brief language
Mitchell Storyteller 7
The new adventure film from Luc Besson, the director of “The Professional,” “The Fifth Element” and “Lucy,” is based on the comic book series that inspired a generation of artists, writers and filmmakers.
In the 28th century, Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are a team of special operatives charged with maintaining order throughout the human territories. Under assignment from the minister of defense, the two embark on a mission to the astonishing city of Alpha – an ever-expanding metropolis where species from all over the universe have converged over centuries to share knowledge, intelligence and cultures with each other.
There is a mystery at the center of Alpha, a dark force that threatens the peaceful existence of the City of a Thousand Planets, and Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the marauding menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe.
Co-stars include Clive Owen, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock and Rutger Hauer.
This film will be screened daily.
Mitchell Storyteller 7 Theatres, 110 Old Talpa Cañón Road. For show times, tickets and additional information, call (575) 751-4245 or visit storyteller7.com.
MPAA rating: R for drug use, language and some sexual content
Movies at the TCA
Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott) is a veteran actor of film Westerns whose career’s best years are behind him after his one really great film, “The Hero.” Now, scraping by with voice-overs for commercials, Lee learns that he has a terminal prognosis of pancreatic cancer.
Unable to bring himself to tell anyone about it, especially his estranged family, Lee can only brood alone as troubling, yet inspiring, dreams haunt him. Things change when he meets Charlotte Dylan (Laura Prepon), a stand-up comedian who becomes a lover who inadvertently jump-starts his public profile.
Now facing a profound emotional conflict of having a potential career comeback even as his imminent death is staring him in the face, Lee must finally come to terms with both realities when he finally confesses his situation to the one person he can.
Incidentally, Elliott appeared in person in 2003 at the Taos Community Auditorium during the presentation of “Off the Map,” a film directed by Campbell Scott for the Taos Taos Talking Picture Festival, where it won the Taos Land Grant Award. Scott himself won the Maverick Award that year, as well.
Directed and co-written by Brett Haley, this film co-stars Katharine Ross (married to Elliott in real life), Nick Offerman, Krysten Ritter and Max Gail.
This film will be screened at 2 p.m. Sunday (July 30) and at 7 p.m. Monday through Wednesday (July 31-Aug. 2).
Movies at the TCA film series, Taos Community Auditorium, 145 Paseo del Pueblo Norte. For tickets and additional information, call the Taos Center for the Arts at (575) 758-2052 or visit tcataos.org.