When it was announced that Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to the polarizing space epic Interstellar would be a much more grounded film rooted in the history, it was a bit of a surprise.
Here was a director who has made a career (and, generally, huge box office returns) on the fantastical – imaginative works grand in vision and scope – looking to bring to life a much more straightforward premise by comparison.
But Nolan is also known for taking risks, and as it turns out, Dunkirk is no different. It’s a reinvigoration of the war genre, and its most innovative offering in decades.
There’s certain elements you can expect every time you go to see a Nolan film: a certain visual aesthetic that borders on broody without ever fully entering Kubrick territory, a pounding score, iconic imagery and emotional heft.
Dunkirk embraces all of these without succumbing to supersized blasts of Nolanism. If there’s one movie in his catalogue that a modern film buff might mistake for another director, it’s this.
At times the writer-director hopes for too much out of his films, whether it’s explicit thematical exploration or dense subplots that can get in the way of otherwise intense experiences.
But he shows growth with his 10th feature, which is also one of his leanest to date at 106 minutes. (His previous three movies – Interstellar, The Dark Knight Rises and Inception – average over 2-and-a-half hours.) This film is a historical snapshot, one that depicts in harrowing detail the aftermath of a battle few know very much about – a reminder that even war’s less notable chapters are intense tales.
And Dunkirk is nothing if not intense from beginning to end, dropping the viewers in the middle of the action, at a point of peak hopelessness for hundreds of thousands of British and French soldiers who can do nothing but wait to leave the French city at the onset of WWII as the enemy closes in.
The movie revels in the isolation of war, depicting it with surety and expertly-conjured shots, some of which are sure to become iconic –long lines of soldiers on the beaches, a lone survivor sitting on the only part of a sunken boat still above water, three British planes flying through immense expanses of sky like the last mechanical birds on Earth.
In a film where so few words are spoken, Nolan’s skill for crafting sweeping cinematography says so much about the situation the soldiers find themselves in, soldiers and pilots whose names we never learn. Although newcomer Fionn Whitehead is billed somewhat as the lead, there’s a cast of other characters who receive the same amount of attention and screentime.
We don’t know the backstories of any of these characters, and we barely get a glimpse into their personalities. While war classics like Saving Private Ryan fleshes out the stories of its troops, Dunkirk instead shows us that, by its very nature, war doesn’t care about who comes its way – it’ll put a bullet in you just the same.
It isn’t that Dunkirk is emotionless; pick any 5-minute stretch, and I was more engaged with it than other recent war movies like Hacksaw Ridge and American Sniper. With respect to those films and the real-life heroes they depict, Dunkirk is perhaps a more realistic vision of the how the boys sent off to fight in WWII – many of them teenagers – were never truly equipped for what they’d experience. The concept of home itself means as much to them as air; survival itself is a victory. By telling the story in a way that is so matter-of-fact, Nolan has found a way to perhaps pays as much homage to the soldiers as a studio film made 80 years later possibly can.
Nolan’s decision of how to present the story is, in itself, nothing short of genius. Without giving too much away, it unfolds over three distinct narratives with their own characters and timelines, and the moment I realized what Nolan was doing with the film’s aspect of time was the most satisfying lightbulb moment I’ve had in a theater this year.
It’s also the moment I realized he is the perfect director to tell this story, even though it’s almost totally different from anything he’s done.
It goes without saying that, technically, Dunkirk, is a marvel. Nolan once again partners up with Hans Zimmer, who lends his immense score-creating talents. The sound editing is top-notch, and the choice to make a good portion of the dialogue nearly unintelligible effectively adds to the intrigue, making you feel even more like you’re right there.
The film’s cast – for the miniscule amounts of time we spend with its individual components – ranges from good to really good. Mark Rylance in particular continues an impressive (and underrated) streak, and Harry Styles (yep, that Harry Styles) transcends whatever impression you might have of the musician beforehand in a role that’s decidedly more than a cameo.
Whitehead speaks probably the least of the major players, instead effectively embodying using a stoic, nearly zombie-like demeanor to express the attitude of every solider on the beaches of Dunkirk who have to be thinking, “How did I get here? Will I ever get out?”
That’s essentially the premise of the film, one which imagines the comforts of home as a luxury soldiers in war can’t afford. Even when they’re served tea and toast on an evacuation ship, they’re smart enough to know they’re not out of it yet. When they’re hesitant about going into the hull of a boat, seemingly descending into safety but fully aware that that safety can turn into a trap in a split second, you know they’ve been through hell.
Dunkirk may very well be the film that comes to define Nolan’s career. Not in terms of cultural impact, evolution of the craft or even when considering his best work (hell, I have trouble putting it into his top 3. His career’s been that good). But Dunkirk, more than any other of his movies, shows his discipline and ability to restrain himself from doing something overly dramatic and grand that would detract from the final product.
As a result, Dunkirk is one of his most intimate films to date, and the best movie of the year so far.
Dunkirk is rated PG-13 for intense war experiences and some language
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Damian Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard, Lee Armstrong
Directed by Christopher Nolan