Make sure you experience Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk at a theater with the most gigantic screen available—in IMAX 70mm, if possible—and with a killer sound system. With its sweeping sea-and-ski visuals by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and its driving, ticking-clock Hans Zimmer score, the movie is a visual and aural knockout—an immersive, walloping, heartbreaking epic of a size, scope and level of ambition and artistry we rarely see anymore. Throwing the audience headlong into the deafening noise and constant jeopardy of the World War II evacuation and rescue of Allied troops from the Nazis, the movie is a universe apart from the world of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, let alone Inception and Interstellar. It’s simpler, leaner and more emotionally direct than those dazzlers; clearly a labor of love, yet every bit as tense and involving as Nolan’s gritty flights of sci-fi and superhero fancy.
The tripwire narrative, which interweaves three separate stories in different time frames, never lets up for 106 minutes. Nolan keeps the dialogue sparse, almost on the level of a silent movie, with no time for long backstories or deep motivation. But damn if this thing doesn’t grab you and make you root for the survival of its characters. Everyone in the film is shown in extremis and, while the craft of Nolan and company is the stuff of classic filmmaking, the storytelling is fresh and oblique, with the writer-director, as usual, refusing to coddle, spoon-feed or milk cheap emotion from the audience.
Pummeled by the German forces on the ground and on the seas are the young, battle-weary grunt soldiers of the British Empire, France, Canada and Belgium, played exceptionally well by Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles and hundreds more. Then there’s the stiff-upper-lip military brass acted with strong esprit de corps and surprising vulnerability by Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy (such a standout you wish there were more of him). In the air is Spitfire pilot Tom Hardy (totally convincing, yet uttering less than a dozen lines) leading some of the most thrilling dogfight scenes in film history. Among the civilians racing in their own private boats to help in the evacuation are Mark Rylance as a simple, decent father, Tom Glynn-Carney as his straight-arrow son, Barry Keoghan as a patriotic youth who refuses to be underestimated and Cillian Murphy as a traumatized and volatile rescued solider. It’s a movie full of great faces, raw talent and seasoned pros.
Nolan gives the three sections of his movie pretty much equal weight but, for our money, the military stalwart stuff, full of screw-ups and finger-pointing, is the most conventional and least compelling. But the action scenes—a pair of recruits racing to deposit a wounded solider onto a departing rescue boat; masses of soldiers ducking for cover as German pilots strafe the beach; young men trapped below deck in the hull of a bullet-ridden boat as the ocean water rushes in—are terrifyingly visceral.
Although Nolan’s refusal to trade on cheesy emotion and flag-waving could make the film less popular with certain audiences, Dunkirk settles any debate about his being one of the master directors of our time. His technical grasp is boundless, his images approach poetry and his empathy for the characters’ bravery and sacrifice is palpable. This film feels very much like its own beast, and yet it has a stark beauty and raw power that suggests the great silent films of the 1920s and an attention to character and emotion that suggests the best “intimate epics” of director David Lean. Watching Dunkirk, the word “masterpiece” comes to mind—often and effortlessly.