'Dunkirk' Review: Relentless, Lean and Christopher Nolan's Best Film to Date

'Dunkirk' is the film that finally justifies Nolan's showy tendencies.

Dunkirk Crop

‘Dunkirk’ is the film that finally justifies Nolan’s showy tendencies.

Code-named Operation Dynamo, the miraculous, week-long evacuation of more than 300,000 British and Allied soldiers from the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk is among the most legendary narratives of the Second World War. A momentous point in the war’s trajectory, the account of Dunkirk is made up of stranded, fatally exposed yet defiant survivors who waited on the French shores in unthinkable terror and despair, and heroic civilians who fearlessly crossed the English Channel in their fishing boats at all costs to bring their young soldiers back to safety. Just recently, we peeked into this slice of history with Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest and followed a government-employed WWII-era British screenwriter working on an inspirational Dunkirk script that aims to boost the nation’s morale and sense of self-assurance. She focuses on one specific story, but the resulting film organically and inevitably draws from thousands of similar true Dunkirk tales of audacity.

In Christopher Nolan’s masterful, heart-racing nail-biter Dunkirk—easily among the boldest and grandest war films ever made—those thousands of stories unfold non-stop with startling realism and intimacy during the film’s every single relentlessly pulsating minute, both on screen and off (what you don’t see, including the Germans who are simply referred to as “the enemy,” you constantly feel.) Brilliantly and innovatively told from three perspectives (land, sea and air) and broken down to three respective, intertwined timelines that correspond with each of the three viewpoints (a week, a day and an hour), Dunkirk is a film about no one person in particular: don’t quite expect to deeply get to know all the players in this largely wordless and disorienting tour de force. It is instead about everyone that was on or around the beach during that time, or trying to get there, or had a loved one involved in the efforts.

And here is the real marvel of Dunkirk. During its exceptionally well-managed and paced 106 minutes (this is Nolan’s leanest and cleanest film to date), especially if you happen to be watching it in glorious 70mm IMAX (which you should do, if the option is available to you), you truly end up believing you are one of them. The realness of the experience is at once unsettling, frightening and dare I say, exciting in the tradition of Hollywood’s best blockbusters. The sensation measures up to the dizzying opening sequence of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and the swelling second half of James Cameron’s Titanic where passengers and crew one by one fall into the hands of their eventual, grim deaths. You will feel the salt in your mouth, shiver down your spine and seasickness in your stomach, though the biggest warning here is reserved for claustrophobics: start mentally prepping now and don’t forget to breathe.

On land (or the mole), where the direness of a weeklong time frame is imminent, we join Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), initial strangers but eventual companions who realize their survival would largely depend on each other. They desperately bide their time to hop on a ship through a clever act of quick thinking and camaraderie and soon enough cross paths and bond with Alex (Harry Styles). Also on land are Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy), a pair that resolutely oversees the evacuation efforts until its final moments like concerned but calm-under-pressure ship captains who’ll always put the safety of their passengers first. (They also occasionally serve as the focal center of their own segment, as seeing through their eyes and hearing through their ears helps us find our bearings.) On the sea, we follow a day in the life of Mr. Dawson (a superb, quietly commanding Mark Rylance), a local fisherman who joins the hundreds of English civilians and sets off to cross the channel to rescue soldiers from France. Joining him are his young, inexperienced teenage son Peter (Tom Glynn Carney, who does beautifully with the film’s most heartbreaking and crucial part) and his friend George (Barry Keoghan), who bravely hops on board to offer a helping hand without much thought for what he is getting himself into. On their way to Dunkirk, they pick up a wounded soldier from the sea (Cillian Murphy, playing an unnamed character) whose understandable PTSD dials up the drama and dilemma on board in an unforgettably expressive, heartbreaking plot turn that will leave a lump in your throat. Finally, during the single hour dedicated to the air, we follow two RAF pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) battling the enemy’s Luftwaffe planes in both shielding the rescue efforts and protecting the thin strands of soldiers on the beach.

This story design might sound a tad confusing, but Nolan, who also penned the script, makes sure the intercut timelines work among themselves and against each other in wondrous and harmonious ways, aided both by Lee Smith’s precise editing and Hoyte Van Hoytema’s splendid lens. On the beach, the length of the wait is grimly pronounced. On the sea, the slowly approaching unknown and danger are defined with a sense of gradual panic. And finally, in the air, the urgency and vitality of that single hour are valiantly, unforgivingly present. Harsh, thunderous and brutal at every turn, Dunkirk in many ways is a breathtaking showcase for many of Nolan’s recurring artistic inclinations. Indeed, from his childlike fascination with the passage of time (which he manifested most notably with the backwards Memento and time-defying Inception and Interstellar) to a stern, raucous solemnity that sometimes admittedly puts a dent on his films (this is, after all, the same Nolan who made superhero flicks hyper severe and self-important with his Batman trilogy), many of the filmmaker’s go-to storytelling devices and directorial tendencies are in full effect here. I realize this might at first glance sound like alarming news to his toughest critics, who generally find him noisy and showy for no good reason. But what sets Dunkirk apart in Nolan’s filmography lies exactly in the latter part of the previous statement: his signature heavy-handed mode seems to finally have found a good reason and a fitting home in the trenches of a stunning war blockbuster that justifies his artistic penchants.

Thanks to his unapologetically immense and imposing style, Dunkirk is as cinematically close as one can get to wartime trauma, survival impulses, and heroic altruism. Tone anything down, and the balancing act would be disturbed and something would immediately feel off. Even the intense Hans Zimmer score charged by the undercurrent sounds of a ticking clock feels most vital (except during a singular moment when it unnecessarily spells out relief and victory.) This is perhaps the first time a Nolan-Zimmer pairing doesn’t feel like a reminder that we are watching something intense and important, even though, well, we are; one that feels like a magnificent and visionary structural triumph, unlike anything.

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.