“Dunkirk” is Definitely a Must See in Theater Film

Sometimes when you see a spectacular movie trailer you really wonder if the film itself is going to meet expectations. In the case of “Dunkirk” when you see the spectacular trailer and learn that the film was directed by Christopher Nolan it’s much easier to believe it’s going to be something special. Nolan has proven himself capable of managing huge spectacles with lots of action and special effects. He’s responsible for the Dark Knight Batman trilogy and sci-fi blockbusters Inception and Interstellar. So I was expecting to be wowed.

“Dunkirk” Official Main Trailer


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One of the things I like about Nolan is that he often films major action sequences using actual IMAX cameras rather than using traditional cameras. Many IMAX films these days are shot on 35mm or digital and then converted to IMAX in postprocessing. I have read reviews that said be sure to see it in the 70 mm film version rather than the digital version or even digital IMAX. I’m not a film purist who religiously presumes that celluloid is better than digital. I happen to like digital films. But I do appreciate there is something special about 70 mm film.

The IMAX Theatre at the Indiana State Museum in downtown Indianapolis has been showing “Dunkirk” in 70 mm film IMAX and so I decided that would be the best place to see it. I used to be a frequent patron of that facility when it was the only IMAX in town. But recently I’ve been enjoying the slightly smaller digital IMAX theaters at Traders Point and South Meridian. I thought it was great that IMAX was becoming more widespread and even though these venues are not as large as the downtown IMAX, I still very much enjoy their showings. Some people refer to these multiplex IMAX theaters as Lie-MAX and are not true IMAX. But I’ve never felt cheated by watching films there. The slightly smaller screen doesn’t bother me because it still is bigger than the average multiplex screen. The sound isn’t quite as powerful as the downtown IMAX but it’s still pretty good.

This afternoon I went to the downtown IMAX and had my eyes maxed and my ears maxed as well watching “Dunkirk”. It is everything that I hoped it would be and more. By my estimate perhaps three fourths of the film was in full-screen IMAX with only smaller sequences shot in a traditional widescreen format with letterbox black bars above and below. The phenomenal sound system was even better than I had remembered. As I mentioned earlier the sound system is my only complaint about the smaller IMAX theaters. You actually feel the explosions in your bones yet it’s not so loud that it hurts your ears. One of the IMAX marketing catchphrases is “See a movie… Or become part of one” and you really do feel like you are there on the beach or in the aircraft or on the ships in Dunkirk.

If you’re not familiar with the story, it’s the true story of 400,000 British and French troops with their backs against this sea in Dunkirk France surrounded on all sides by the Nazis. Because the landing area is so shallow they could only exit on a long pier that extends into deep water. German aircraft routinely strafe and bomb the defenseless troops. The British government put out a call to all private boats in the area to assist with the evacuation.

The story is told through the eyes of three groups of people spread over three overlapping time periods. We start with a British soldier who is the only survivor of his squad as they make their way through the city to the beach. We follow his attempts to try to get onto a boat. Along the way he joins up with another soldier and they try to make their way to the head of the queue by volunteering as stretcher bearers to carry the wounded onto a hospital ship. Without spoiling the plot too much, I can say that their strategy is unsuccessful and they make several other attempts to leave the beach throughout the film. Also on the beach we have a British naval commander played by Kenneth Branagh and his officers who are overseeing the evacuation. He’s faced with such difficult decisions such as suggesting that we reconsider giving priority to the wounded because you can have seven men standing in the same area occupied by one stretcher.

We also witness the battle through the eyes of a trio of British Spitfire fighter pilots patrolling the area desperately trying to protect the troops and the ships.

Much of the story however from the perspective of Mr. Dawson, a charter boat captain with two young crewmembers who are among the armada of civilian ships participating in the evacuation.

Each of these three stories makes the overall spectacle very personal for the audience. By telling each of their individual struggles it makes the broader spectacle even more real.

Nolan likes to play with time in his storytelling. The events on the beach take place over the course of one week. The events on the charter boat take place over one day. And the battle in the skies takes place over the course of one hour. The events all come together in a sequence where the fighter pilots are trying to shoot down a German bomber as it is attempting to sink a minesweeper ship full of evacuating soldiers. Nearby soldiers are aboard a sinking fishing trawler that has been shot up by the Germans. And the charter boat is trying to rescue men in the water. You see these events repeated several times from the perspective of each group.

There are extremely few quiet moments in the film. It’s pretty much wall-to-wall action and when there isn’t any action you can feel the tension and the sense of peril that all of the participants are facing. How can I get on a ship? When will the next wave of Nazi aircraft attack? Do I have enough fuel to make it home?

The bottom line for me is this may be the best war movie I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s every bit as realistic as “Saving Private Ryan” and although it pulls no punches with the violence of war, it gracefully spares us some of the gore that made parts of Ryan sometimes too difficult to watch.

You definitely need to see this movie in the theater. If you can, see it in IMAX. And better yet see it in the 70 mm film IMAX at the Indiana State Museum or any other 70 mm venue if you’re not in the Indianapolis area.

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