Dunkirk’ Review: Christopher Nolan’s Monumental War Epic Is The Best Film He’s Ever Made

“Dunkirk” is a bloodless but profoundly unnerving assault on the senses, a spectacle that searches for order in the midst of chaos.

You never see the Germans.

Nearly every 70mm frame of Christopher Nolan’s monumental new film is lodged in the heart of the heart of World War II — ticking down the seconds as the Nazis tighten the noose around 400,000 Allied troops who are stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk — but you never see the Germans. Their submarines lurk invisibly beneath the waters offshore, their planes swoop in the distance overhead, and their foot soldiers remain off-camera as they amass on the other side of the dunes and wait for the order to attack.

On the rare occasions when the Axis fighters make themselves known (as they do in the haunted and startling prologue), their bullets whistle towards us like the wind, materializing from nowhere and visible only for the destruction they leave behind. Out of sight, however, is most definitely not out of mind. On the contrary, Nolan makes it impossible to think about anything else. His unshakeable account of Britain’s darkest hour — and the miraculous dawn that followed — dissolves Hitler’s army into a primarily existential threat. The opening text refers to them as just “the enemy.” They are as vague and violent as the dream projections in “Inception,” less of a literal force than a deadly abstraction that lives under our skin, feeds on our fears, and erodes our shared purpose. 

In other words, they are the perfect antagonists for a PG-13 war epic, their absence allowing this story of panic and isolation to celebrate Britain’s past while also condemning its Brexit-era present. They are the galvanizing force behind a cinematic oxymoron, a virtually bloodless but profoundly unnerving assault on the senses. Cleaving closer to Sartre than Spielberg, “Dunkirk” is a stunning work of raw spectacle that searches for order in the midst of chaos. It’s the most contradictory film that Christopher Nolan has ever made, and — not incidentally — also the best.

Modern cinema’s most dedicated rationalist, Nolan has made a (staggeringly successful) career by applying Spock logic to Kirk premises. “Interstellar” attempted to solve the nature of love for its Darwinian purpose. “Inception” imposed rigid systems upon the realm of raw imagination, dissecting the human subconscious with a safecracker’s precision. “The Dark Knight Trilogy” is a triptych of superhero movies that redefined the genre by denying its natural inclination towards fantasy.

War is banal. War is madness. War offers no reason behind who lives and who dies. Of course Christopher Nolan needed to try and figure out how it works (in hindsight, it’s kind of shocking that he waited this long). With “Dunkirk,” the über-popular director has crafted yet another blunt force exercise that uses ALL-CAPS film language to confuse the borders between time and space, deconstructing the physical world in order to explore the immaterial forces that make it tick. A historical blockbuster may seem like a bold change of pace for him, especially one that runs a tight 106 minutes and doesn’t include a single male character who’s trying to forgive himself for failing his dead wife, but this is still the stuff of vintage Nolan. It’s still the work of someone who’s part watchmaker and part showman, someone who disassembles each of his stories for the thrill of putting them back together (in a sense, all of his films are “Prestige” pictures).

“Dunkirk” naturally consists of three parts, each of which belongs to its own timeline and terrain. The film is evenly split across land, sea, and air — the young draftees who spend a week stranded on the beach, the civilian sailors who brave a day on the waters in order to rescue them, and the volunteer RAF pilots who dart out of the clouds and provide cover fire at the eleventh hour of the great escape. Needless to say, the evacuation was a very different experience for all involved, but the screenplay’s boldest stroke is how it equalizes them into one by cutting between these separate fronts as though they’re all happening simultaneously.

A teenage kid named Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead, whose wide-eyed performance channels Christian Bale in “Empire of the Sun”) barely makes it to the shore with his life intact — rejoining the rest of the troops, he spots a fellow Brit (Aneurin Barnard) and the two boys wordlessly agree that their only hope for survival is to earn passage aboard the hospital ship that’s about to set sail for England, so close but so far away. Eventually, they’re joined by a hard-edged infantryman played with great urgency by pop star Harry Styles, Nolan jumbling unknowns together with mega-celebrities in order to stress the egalitarian nature of being left to die. Combat experience isn’t required to appreciate how everyone fights their own war, how the grunts who got mowed down on Normandy Beach had as much to live for as the generals who sent them to the slaughter. Accordingly, “Dunkirk” doesn’t judge these lads for their desperation, nor for the lengths to which it takes them. In fact, his film is enormously forgiving when it comes to the fevers of war, empathetic towards self-protection even as it celebrates the virtues of solidarity.

Meanwhile — but really a few days later — England’s citizen sailors are called to action. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance, embodying a caricature of workaday nobility) is one such citizen, and he doesn’t think twice about sailing his wobbly yacht towards the storm. His 19-year-old son (Tom Glynn-Carney playing a Very Good Boy) makes for a very handy first mate, but his friend George (“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” breakout Barry Keoghan) isn’t quite as useful. An overeager boy who senses an opportunity to define himself, George hops onto the boat at the last second, unaware of what the day might have in store for him.

The beating heart of a broadly unsentimental film, George is Nolan’s equivalent of the Girl in the Red Coat from “Schindler’s List,” a beacon of humanity in a sea of indifference. His fate might frustrate viewers who feel that Nolan has finally found a project that suits his clinical demeanor, but the character is essential to a story that’s hellbent on internalizing the randomness that most war movies relegate to the background. Nolan’s fumbles are reserved for Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton, whose classified knowledge of the grim situation at hand doesn’t bleed into anything real.

Above the ruckus, on a sunny afternoon that stands out from the frigid gray palettes of the other threads, an RAF Spitfire piloted by Tom Hardy is locked in a dogfight with the Luftwaffe. The actor has even less dialogue than the rest of the cast, and all of his words are so thoroughly garbled by his oxygen mask that it feels like Nolan only made him speak out of spite for the people who complained about Bane. No matter, the aerial sequences are awe-inspiring all the same.

“Virtual reality without the headset” Nolan has called the experience of seeing this in its proper glory, and he wasn’t kidding — “Dunkirk” is the ultimate fuck you to the idea of streaming a new movie to your phone. The director and his team customized an IMAX rig so the camera could squeeze into the cockpit of a WWII fighter plane, and the footage they captured from the sky is so transportive that every ticket should earn you frequent flier miles. One shot, in which we share a pilot’s POV as they make a crash landing on the water, singlehandedly justifies this entire portion of the film long before Nolan inevitably converges it with the other two for the rousing final act.

ut “Dunkirk” isn’t the most astounding experience ever offered by the IMAX format because of its bravura moments, but rather because Nolan takes advantage of the massive screen during the more intimate ones as well. He and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema shot roughly 75% of the film on IMAX 65mm stock, gambling on the hope that the visual splendor of the larger images would be worth the discombobulation of cutting between aspect rations from scene to scene, or even shot to shot.

Is it ever. The beaches of Dunkirk stretch from the sand to the stratosphere, van Hoytema bisecting his frames into two thick swatches of muted color that resemble the most hopeless of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s “Seascapes.” The soldiers feel humiliatingly small. Elsewhere, Mr. Dawson’s gentle grimace is rendered 16 stories high. The decision not to assign one format to the action setpieces and another to the dramatic interludes allows Nolan’s film to sustain a baseline intensity (and horror) from start to finish — it’s one of many decisions geared towards preserving the present tense at all costs.

From the layered structure of its narrative to the fetishistically tactile nature of Nolan’s approach, “Dunkirk” never allows its characters to feel like they’re safe. Their fears compound each other’s as the film bends time to its will, editor Lee Smith cross-cutting between a midnight sequence of sailors trapped in the hull of a sinking ship and a mid-day episode in which a Spitfire pilot tries to unjam the hatch of his plane as water fills the cockpit. The terror rolls in like the waves of a constant tide; when one panic recedes, another incrementally more dangerous one takes its place. There’s a bracing measure of catharsis when the storylines converge and your shell-shock melts into relief, but “Dunkirk” is a movie without a proper beginning or an end, without supporting characters or side-plots or any other kind of periphery. It’s a movie that’s told from the middle, that expands from the inside out until the spectacle of it all is so immense that it blots out everything beyond the tick tick tick of the terror at hand.

Neither as poetic as “The Thin Red Line” nor as savage as “Saving Private Ryan,” Nolan’s contribution to the war genre owes less to its forefathers than it does unbearably anxious thrillers like “The Wages of Fear” or even “United 93.” Riding Hans Zimmer’s typically bombastic score, which abandons melody in favor of ratcheting up the tension, “Dunkirk” leverages raw suspense in order to cut its characters away from their context and throw them back onto themselves. Few movies have so palpably conveyed the sheer isolation of fear, and the extent to which history is often made by people who are just trying to survive it — few movies have so vividly illustrated that one man can only do as much for his country as a country can do for one of its men. But Nolan, by stressing that grim truth to its breaking point, returns from the fray with a commanding testament to a simple idea: We may die alone, but we live together.

Leave a Reply