In 1940, over 400,000 allied soldiers were trapped and surrounded on a beach in Dunkirk, France. These events are referred to as the Battle of Dunkirk. But that is a misnomer, as it wasn't a battle at all. It was a desperate escape, a harrowing matter of survival.
From the opening frames of Dunkirk, it is utterly clear you are in the hands of a master filmmaker. In its less-than-two-hour runtime, Christopher Nolan gives us an account of one of the most desperate hours in the history of mankind, a juxtaposition of stark humanity and vast, titanic, inhuman forces.
There are three narrative threads that run through the film: land, sea, and air. These also correlate to the non-linear way this film uses time: one week on land, one day on the sea, one hour in the air. Seeing these threads weave together until they finally converge is only occasionally confusing and entirely impressive. And the fact that all of this is accomplished with very little dialogue is more impressive still.
The cast all do their jobs so well that the recognizable faces entirely disappear. These are not actors; they are simply the people on screen. Their performances are all offered up in service to the greater film itself. And that is the highest compliment I can give them.
Now, hear me very well: The entire film is a masters class in visual craftsmanship, but I have never seen anything like the aerial cinematography in this film. The scope, clarity, and scale of the shots in and from the air are absolutely staggering. (As a side note, I drove an hour each way and paid double the normal ticket price to see Dunkirk in an IMAX theater. It was worth every single penny. Nolan shot the majority of this film in the IMAX format, so if you can make it to an IMAX theater, do it.)
There is a spirit of colossal dread that indwells this film, given life by the images set before us by Nolan and driven home in perfect counterpoint by the score of long-time collaborator Hans Zimmer. This spirit is unseen, an invisible monster lurking out of frame, but it's heavy presence is felt throughout. There are a dozen films that display the bloody horrors of war, but I have never seen a film that so poignantly conveys the massive, overwhelming terror of it.
This intensity is accomplished in part by the fact that the enemy is absolutely never seen. We do not see enemy soldiers brandishing their guns; we see only the bullet holes they make. We do not see the eyes of the airmen strafing the beach; we see only the bombs they drop and the craters in the sand. We do not see massive armies on the march; we hear the screams of a bomber as it bears down upon us.
That kind of gigantic, un-personified, and inhuman foe stands in stark contrast to the small, intimate, and human moments that the film follows. Whether it's a leader keeping his place in full view above the men he refuses to abandon, an ordinary citizen sailing his boat into danger to help whom he can, or a single soldier trying desperately to make it home, the full spectrum of humanity is deftly portrayed.
There is a beating heart of morality at the center of this film. This isn't the first time we've seen this theme from Nolan, as this is a common thread in his body of work. In Dunkirk, however, it shines through clearer and stronger than ever. There is courage among overwhelming dangers, honor in the midst of the most dire of circumstances, and valor in the face of death. If Dunkirk has a lesson to teach, it is this: You do what's right. Even if it costs you dearly, even if it costs you everything, you do what's right. Because how we treat each other not only matters, it may be the only thing that does.
Conceptually and narratively speaking, this is not my favorite Christopher Nolan movie. However, I sincerely believe that Dunkirk is his finest film. This is not a summer popcorn movie. There are no inspiring speeches, no mythical heroes or villains, no climactic final battle. It is a war movie like no other I have ever seen. It is a monumental piece of film-making, one that displays the desperate courage of normal people, a film that finds the heroism in tiny acts of human kindness. And it just might be the best film we'll see this year.