Among living writer-directors Christopher Nolan generates near-unrivaled sight-unseen anticipation, and “Dunkirk” does nothing to diminish that brand. Nolan has delivered a visceral, suspenseful, at times jaw-dropping historical war movie, the lone disclaimer being that he sacrifices character development in his steadfast focus on technical virtuosity.
Indeed, while “Dunkirk” is epic in scope and feel, it’s not in length, and Nolan essentially jumps into the story somewhere just short of the middle. As a result, the audience meets a wide assortment of key figures on the fly and gets to know nothing about them, which at least initially blunts the emotional impact.
So even with Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh in the cast, Nolan’s is the only name that really matters. Because Nolan doesn’t waste any time on preliminaries, Yanks who are a little fuzzy on the historical details might be motivated to actually go crack open a book.
The movie takes place in 1940, with British and French forces having already been routed by the German army. Backed up against the beach, 400,000 men are essentially stranded, waiting for rescue while being strafed by airplane fire as they queue up for the few boats that arrive.
The narrative flits among various stories, with Fionn Whitehead and singer Harry Styles as young soldiers, Nolan regular Hardy as a British pilot doing battle over the Channel and Rylance serving as what amounts to a perfect, soulful surrogate for all the ordinary Britons who boarded small boats and brought their boys home. (As a peculiar footnote, the lower half of Hardy’s face is again obscured much of the time, as it was in “The Dark Knight Rises.”)
“Dunkirk” is extraordinarily spare, going long stretches with little or no dialogue. That’s fine – even hypnotic – but also makes it difficult at times to differentiate characters amid the unrelenting chaos.
Then again, that’s a key message of the film, which presents heroism and enormous bravery, but at its core highlights war as a simple struggle for survival. Notably, the Germans are generally invisible throughout, dropping bombs or launching torpedoes but staying off-camera, as the focus remains squarely on the harrowing challenge to get off that beach and make it to England.
Nolan does lend depth to the parallel stories by playing with timelines (a trick he’s employed going back to “Memento”), allowing them to intersect in unexpected ways. He also practically puts the viewer inside the cockpit of an RAF Spitfire or in the line of fire during the action sequences, marking this as that rare film that mightily benefits from seeing it in Imax or a widescreen format to fully appreciate its wizardry, as opposed to “I’ll wait for it on HBO.”
Inevitably, comparisons will be drawn to other modern war movies – perhaps foremost “Saving Private Ryan” – as well as Nolan’s personal filmography. Yet “Dunkirk” very much stands on its own, providing a fresh take on the horrors of war – and the stirring aspect of the Dunkirk rescue – that somehow eradicates the expected clichés of a grunt’s-eye-level view.
Nolan doesn’t necessarily win every battle in telling the story, but he comes out on top often enough to mark this as another major triumph – reflecting the thrill of seeing a filmmaker almost reveling in attacking this moment in World War II history with all the formidable tools of his trade.
“Dunkirk” premieres in the U.S. on July 21. It’s rated PG-13.