After 20 years of film-making defined by gritty Batman movies, twisty crime thrillers, and trippy science fiction, Christopher Nolan again re-invents himself with what is on the surface is a gripping war movie, but in actuality an exercise in heightened realism and a memorial to an event that ultimately shaped the world.
For the uninitiated, the Dunkirk evacuation represents a major strategic blunder by the Nazis in the early months of World War II, in which they cornered some 400,000 Allied soldiers (mostly British and French) on the beach of Dunkirk but failed to finish them off before 338,000 were evacuated by a flotilla of ships that included not just Royal Navy vessels but also. merchant marine boats, fishing boats, pleasure craft, and lifeboats.
Fair warning: Dunkirk does not operate on the sweeping scale of Saving Private Ryan. Nolan opts for telling this epic story through a cross-section of its participants, equally focusing on land, sea, and air via his favorite tactic: nonlinear storytelling — specifically, three different timelines.
The first, “The Mole”, is set on the beach and begins one week before the final evacuation. It focuses mainly on two privates, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles), whose repeated, desperate attempts to get home would verge on comical if the stakes weren’t so high and the odds of survival increasingly low.
The second, “The Sea”, follows the flotilla of small boats that left England during the last day of the operation, in a bid to assist His Majesty’s beleaguered destroyers (six of which were lost during the operation. It centers mostly on a civilian (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and the young man’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) as they cross the Channel, sparring with a traumatized soldier (Cillian Murphy) they pick up along the way.
The third thread, “The Air”, proves to be the most gripping as it follows of a pair of Royal Air Force pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) while they provide air cover during the final hour of the operation, racing the clock, their fuel gauges, and enemy aircraft in equal measure.
The inter-cutting between the three is a tad jarring at first, but Nolan deftly intertwines them in a way that enhances the tension, and when they begin to converge the effect is pure virtuosity. The performers all deliver though there is no real standout — simply because it is an ensemble-driven story (but not a character-driven) in the purest sense.
Nolan brilliantly focuses on the personal level, keeping the story solely about harrowed men desperate to get home. It functions moment-to-moment, from one set-back or small victory to the next, and though we know the outcome of the story, we have no guarantees as to which of the characters (if any) will be delivered into safety until the final minutes. The result is a Hitchcockian level of suspense heightened by Hans Zimmer’s merciless score and Hoyt Van Hoytema’s grey-tinged and often claustrophobic cinematography.
In the hands of lesser artists the material would be by-the-book at best and maudlin string-pulling at its worst. Instead, we get a deftly rendered work of art that offers a satisfying respite during the summer blockbuster season.