SIGN OF THE TIMES

Relax, Harry Styles Is Great in ‘Dunkirk’—Which Itself Is a Modern Masterpiece

Casting the pop star in Christopher Nolan’s war epic might have seemed like a stunt, but Styles plays an integral part in making ‘Dunkirk’ one of the best war films in ages.

Fear not. Only one of the most anticipated pop-culture events of the summer was ruined by the puzzling presence of a British pop megastar.

While Ed Sheeran was busy jumping over just about every shark in Westeros, One Direction alum and current Mick Jagger-in-training Harry Styles makes his big-screen acting debut this week in, much like Game of Thrones, an extremely prestigious blockbuster production. In this case, it’s Christopher Nolan’s war epic, Dunkirk.

Styles is a seamless (if more memorable because OMG IT’S HARRY STYLES) member of a sizable ensemble with which Nolan, who wrote and directed Dunkirk, aces the difficult task of giving equal weight and dignity.

No, unlike Sheeran in Sunday’s ill-advised Thrones cameo, Styles does not sing. Yes, spending much of his screen time dripping wet trying to escape a series of bombed out water vessels and sporting a fresh 1940s British haircut, he is almost impossibly attractive.

Not content to merely lavish every inch of the IMAX screen with his perfect jawline and swoon-inducing puppy dog eyes, but also acquitting himself competently in a cast that includes Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, and Cillian Murphy, Styles emerges every bit the movie star. And Dunkirk is precisely the kind of major Hollywood war film poised to create one.

What’s so ambitious and ultimately so masterful about Dunkirk is that it is almost entirely an action sequence.

Its brisk one-hour-and 45-minute running time skips over hum-drum scenes of elderly commanders debating strategy in war rooms far-flung from the battleground, and resists establishing schmaltzy backstories meant to endear us to the soldiers we meet.

Instead we pick up with the cast of soldiers mid-attack. Newcomer (and de facto Dunkirk lead) Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy is fleeing snipers in the streets of the French city. Styles’s Alex is bailing from a sinking ship, swimming for shore. Hardy’s Farrier is already in the air flying to ward off the air strikers targeting the soldiers attempting to evacuate the beach.

The result is one of the most relentlessly intense war films made yet, a full-throttle onslaught of attacks, rescue efforts, and war desperation with a full artillery of gunfire whizzing through nearly every shot, making for an audience experience that is as exhausting as it is thrilling.

That Nolan manages to keep up that pace of adrenaline and astounding action—you should definitely see this in IMAX if you can—without falling prey to the kind of gratuitous special effects cacophony that plagues so many action films might be this summer’s greatest cinematic feat.

In May 1940, one of the most large-scale evacuation efforts in history took place in Dunkirk, France, a northern coastal town where hundreds of thousands of Allied troops were trapped like sitting ducks after an enemy surge. Using every serviceable vessel that could be found—a fleet of 800 boats that included civilian-piloted motor yachts, pleasure steamers, and fishing boats—over 300,000 men were meticulously rescued off the beaches of Dunkirk over the course of nine days.

The astonishing story has all the elements of a perfect Hollywood screenplay: the unbelievable real-life events, the scale and scope of the battle scenes, the patriotic and inspiring rallying of the British boatsmen who piloted their personal vessels across the Strait of Dover into the line of enemy fire to rescue their boys. But what it required, too, was the unique vision and simultaneous ambition and restraint that only Nolan at this point in his career could produce.

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The first gamble is making a largely unknown, or at least unproven, cast the heart of the film, with Styles joining Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard as the trio of soldiers whose incessant dodging of death is the emotional and narrative thread around which three different timeframes weave.

While we follow their week-long attempt to be evacuated from the beach, the film splices in one day of Rylance, a stoic British civilian stepping up for duty, piloting his pleasure yacht from Britain to France to rescue as many soldiers as he can and one hour of Hardy taking down enemy fighters in the air so that the rescue mission won’t be bombed out.  

The three timelines and war efforts eventually all converge for a rousing finale that almost can’t be called climactic, with the film’s high-energy never really stopping from scene one onward.

Nolan filmed Dunkirk in 70MM, the wide-resolution film gauge once used to project masterpieces like Lawrence of Arabia and Ben-Hur because of the crisper, brighter, stabler images it manages to produce, making each frame almost like a painting.

Once the industry standard, especially for epics like this, it’s gone by the wayside in favor of cheaper digital film. It has, however, experienced a renaissance of late, with filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and, now, Nolan swearing by it and encouraging fans to seek out the limited number of 70MM theaters in the country to view their movies.

Everything about Dunkirk is elegant and gorgeous, from the sweeping shots of the thousands of soldiers stranded on the beach, to the video-game-esque fighter craft sequences, to Styles’s perfect cheekbones, to the fabulous chunky fall sweaters sported by Mark Rylance and his sons—as Vulture’s Jackson McHenry half-joked, if there’s ever been a time for film to have merchandise tie-ins, a collection of Rylance’s sweaters needs to hit stores immediately.

Each camera shot and action sequence is meticulously crafted, which almost counterintuitively is the key to telegraphing the chaos of the events in Dunkirk, making it a spectacularly visceral and compelling theatrical experience. You’ve barely breathed after the dodging of one literal bullet when another carrier is sunk, another aircraft whirs into earshot, another rescue boat is thwarted.

There’s panic, sure. But there’s also as much resignation as there is desperation as these shell-shocked soldiers, in this case, literally swim from one near-death experience to the next in hopes of survival. That Nolan relies almost exclusively on practical effects only raises those stakes.

So often action movies today could basically be called animated films, with CGI being used like a paint brush. But Nolan recreated an actual warzone. Dunkirk was shot on location in Northern France with real war ships and fighter planes. As marine shoot coordinator Neil Andrea recounted in The Independent, that meant procuring roughly dozens of WWII-era ships for the shoot, and ones that still actually worked: “On certain days, there were up to 60 ships in the water.”

The commitment to the on-location shoot pays off. Dunkirk looks cold. It looks unforgiving. It looks terrifying. It looks like war.

In other words, Harry Styles hardly chose a glamorous shoot for his first major film.

War films can be a chore, both to make and to watch. But Dunkirk is that perfect mix of heartbreaking and heart-pounding that mark the all-time greats in the canon—as Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson tweeted, “It’s so good it feels like a war movie you’d discover on TCM at 2 am.

It’s so true to the experience of war that it’s almost a silent film, with the soldiers we follow basically anonymous and wordless, both the blank slates for us to project our own fears and feelings on and, still, captivating human beings to invest in. It’s a matter of seconds before it’s no longer important that you’re watching Harry Styles on screen. All that matters is whether he survives.