Christopher Nolan (“Interstellar”) has wedged himself between two starkly different subgenres of film: cerebral, understated thrillers and large-scale blockbusters. His earlier movies, like the masterful “Memento,” forgo grandiose special effects in favor of mind-bending plots, whereas his recent releases favor mind-bending cinematic techniques rather than tightly structured plots. Sometimes, it feels like he writes messy plots to appear complex and cerebral without actually having much substance — Nolan fanboys can leave the theater feeling, like, "totally mind blown, bro" without understanding anything about the movie. But nonetheless, Nolan has a vision perfectly suited for the summer blockbuster; he deserves all of the credit he gets, reshaping the action movie genre as we know it.
“Dunkirk” is an amalgamation of his greatest talents jampacked into 106 minutes of some of the most inspired filmmaking in recent years. Undoubtedly, this is Nolan’s finest movie and the most compelling, honest war film since 2009’s “The Hurt Locker.”
The movie is set during the Battle of Dunkirk, where hundreds of thousands of Allied troops were forced to retreat to the French port town's beaches along the English Channel after suffering horrendous casualties to the Germans. Its British perspective is a refreshing take on the war genre and an obvious reminder that World War II was being fought years before American involvement. “Dunkirk” does not shy away from the overarching sense of hopelessness and defeat Allied forces felt in the earliest years of the War, and the entire movie focuses on the effort to evacuate the thousands of stranded British troopsx.
“Dunkirk” is split into three locations — the beach, the sea and the air — all focusing on different perspectives of the evacuation. What’s most compelling, though, is Nolan’s storytelling technique. Like “Memento” and “Inception,” Nolan experiments with time, but in this case, with much more subtlety — “Dunkirk” still follows chronological order, but with a slight tweak. The movie’s three parts show separate efforts of the evacuation process occurring over different amounts of time. This addition is just enough to make the story that much more dynamic, ultimately becoming a collage of three heroic tales that are dependant on one another.
The story along the beach occurs over one week and focuses on Tommy, a timid British soldier played by Fionn Whitehead in his first on-screen appearance. Here, the troops dodge frequent bombing runs while waiting for Naval rescue ships, many of which end up sinking anyway. On the water, Mark Rylance (“Bridge of Spies”) stars as Mr. Dawson, a mariner who agrees to take his private boat across the Channel to Dunkirk in an attempt to assist the evacuation effort. He is accompanied by his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and George (Barry Keoghan, “71”), another teenage helper. These events on Dawson’s boat occur over one day. The story in the air occurs only over one hour and revolves around three RAF pilots as they provide air support during the evacuation. By creating three perspectives, Nolan leaves us anxiously awaiting to discover how each story connects with the other.
Along with Rylance, “Dunkirk” boasts some of today’s top actors. Tom Hardy (“Mad Max: Fury Road”) stars as Farrier, a heroic RAF pilot, and even though his dialogue is nearly indistinguishable over the noise of the plane, his performance is still, somehow, compelling. And as much as it pains me to say, even Harry Styles’s performance as Alex, a British soldier, is solid. However, the characters are never the movie’s focal point: Nolan uses them simply as buffers to tell the story, characterizing them enough to still be interesting, though never diving too deep into their personal lives. We grow to care about the main characters, like Mr. Dawson and Tommy, but never get distracted from the underlying tension that builds throughout the movie.
Nolan’s screenplay sticks out as the movie’s strongest point, even considering the visceral practical effects and stunning cinematography. There isn’t one scene that feels superfluous: It’s Nolan’s tightest and most concise story to date. In many ways, “Dunkirk” could have no dialogue and still be equally gripping. We care about the characters, but what they have to say is of little importance. Instead, we care about what happens to them, and this lends itself to some heartbreaking moments. Ultimately, the movie is a slowburner — tension continuously builds until it boils over — but it doesn’t have a dull second. Even from the opening scene, where Tommy avoids enemy fire, every bit of action enthralls.
From watching a massive boat sink into the ocean to a dogfight between two airplanes, “Dunkirk”’s action sequences are stunning yet haunting. It shows the horrors of war without needing to be excessively gory. Some of the most vivid imagery comes from scenes where no explosions are occurring, and Hans Zimmer’s score only adds more depth to the underlying tension.
Nolan pioneered the superhero subgenre with his “Batman” trilogy with no prior experience in this genre beforehand. And now, “Dunkirk” is as equally innovative for the modern war movie. Nolan is frequently talked about as a visionary genius, one of modern cinema’s most influential directors: I now completely agree with this assessment.