Film Review: Christopher Nolan’s war epic ‘Dunkirk’ is a must-see masterpiece

When Dunkirk was first announced, Christopher Nolan seemed to be inherently wrong for the director’s chair. He’s a cold filmmaker; most though, a puzzle-crafter who aspires for Kubrickian greatness but winds up somewhere in the middle between that master and his imitators. He didn’t have the requisite warmth for war, people thought, and they assumed that this particular tale, about the Dunkirk Evacuation (in which average men and women helped to evacuate the British Expeditionary Force off of the titular French beach after a humiliating defeat by the Nazis in 1940) would be like his other films — long, beautiful, cold, and full of staid seriousness that, depending how you looked upon it, either resembled a tasteful melancholy or a boring assemblage.

Up until this Monday, when I saw Dunkirk, The Prestige was my favorite of his films, closely followed by The Dark Knight, as I had my small quibbles with Interstellar and Inception that prevented me from loving them as fully as I wished. It’s also difficult to have a moderate opinion about Nolan’s oeuvre, given how toxic the discourse is around his work online, as his vigilant fanboys attempt to silence critics and, as a reaction to that, the whole of the discussion around his films winds up being corrupted into a series of Hot Takes, backlash, and ironic shitposting.

Rinse, wash, repeat.

The only person who listens to his critics, it seems, is Nolan himself. Dunkirk is short — only an hour and 46 minutes long, 16 minutes shorter than its release-date counterpart Girls Trip, and a full half-hour shorter than Luc Besson’s Valerian. It’s his warmest, as well, though you might not see that on the surface. Dunkirk takes so many things Nolan’s caught shit for in his past films — the landscapes and masculine perspective in Interstellar, the structure of Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, and even features a gas-masked Tom Hardy whose speech is garbled by static — and transforms these disparate elements into something concrete and successful. It’s extremely clever, but it never lets that cleverness clog up its understated heart, and never lets that intelligence blanket the innate understanding of horror on display here.

It’s his best film by a country mile.

The plot of Dunkirk is broken into three different sections, each with their own duration and their own starting point, helpfully explained by a subtitle at the start. The first is about the soldiers trapped on the beach and tells the specific story of a young man (Fionn Whitehead) who wants nothing more than to escape from the horrors of the beach — strafting Stukas, artillery shells, and the never-glimpsed Nazis lurking beyond the French coast — and is willing to do anything to flee. Along the way he meets up with a silent young man who he catches stealing the boots of a dead comrade, and a terrified Harry Styles, who’s in a similar predicament. This segment takes place over the course of a week, and it’s by far the one that takes up the most amount of screen time.

The second, about a father (a soulful Mark Rylance), his son, and his son’s friend, who traverse the channel in a pleasure boat to do their part in the evacuation, takes place over the course of a day, and isn’t without its own suspense, most of which comes from a shellshocked officer (Cillian Murphy) rather than from the bombers in the air and wreckage in the water. The third and final segment, is about a RAF fighter pilot (Hardy), who takes to the skies to try and protect those assisting in the evacuation with about an hour’s worth of fuel in his tank. His gauge is smashed, and Hardy has to figure out both how much he can do and how long he can keep his plane in the air.

Undoubtedly some will be turned off by the temporal antics, though given that Nolan’s been exploring said storytelling and editing methods since 2010 one figures we’d be used to it by now — it’s basically the third act of Inception without the slow motion. At its worst, this method of storytelling can work both as a pace-kill and can come across as joyless puzzlery, as the editing can distract from the story at hand. I’m glad to report that, at least for me, this was not the case. Nolan’s using it here to display the scope of the event at hand, and the so-called “snowball effect” is splendidly effective at creating thrills. It’s not nearly as distracting or as disorienting as one might guess: Nolan knows when to take his foot off the gas and focus on a specific scene — the torpedoing of a boat, or the forced water-landing of an aircraft — and the only point when the editing might be confusing is when the stories start interacting, given that we’re so used to thinking about the film as stories occurring separately that it’s a little hard to adjust when the third act places our heroes on the same schedule. This structure is constantly innovative and stirring, and it may be the best innovation in war cinema since Tarantino abandoned realism to make a fascinating case for film’s power in Inglourious Basterds.

And it never, ever lets up. From the second minute on, it’s non-stop action, though not of the kind you’d expect from a war film. All of the action centers around men and women trying to stay alive no matter the slings and arrows of the Nazi war machine, and the threats are more grow to be more environmental over time- trying not to drown, trying to avoid the oil in the water rather than from bullets and bombs. Whitehead’s story, especially, centers us in all of the horrible ways one could die on the beach, it’s hellish blue-brown dreariness growing more and more all-encompassing and alien with each blast (captured brilliantly by Hoyte van Hoytema, Nolan’s go-to cinematographer in the wake of Wally Pfister’s defection to the director ranks). Hardy’s the only character who ever is on the hunt for action, but it’s done to save lives on the ground, and the survivalist nature of the film itself is perhaps its greatest innovation and best thematic point: That sometimes, we must accept a loss, but that does not mean we’re defeated, that surviving for the battle to come is, in a way, it’s own victory, and that there’s heroism in that.

Ultimately, a great deal of this criticism will fall upon the “he’s just so cold and calculating” kind of speciousness that stalks him in certain critical circles. That’s an understandable take when the filmmaker was working with men in bat costumes or in science-fiction pictures about dream thieves, but the tonal iciness here fits well into the nihilistic tapestry of war that he’s crafting. Arguably it’s what makes Nolan the best possible choice to take on a big-budget homage to the courage of those heroic common men and women — he’s able to show you just how bad, how pointless, how empty, how utterly despairing the conditions those men were in — and the continual emotional understatement throughout Dunkirk may not jive well with those who appreciate a good speech. Nolan’s restraint here is occasionally a little too great for it’s own good, but it’s remarkable how well he’s able to capture the depth of this suffering without resorting to Gibsonian or Spielbergian blood-letting, eschewing the “realist” buzzword for something ultimately more resonant and tragic. If that’s the sacrifice one must make in order to make a film this taught and propulsive still feel as thoroughly as this does for its characters, I’m glad he softened it for us.

You could watch Dunkirk without the thundering Hans Zimmer score, if you truly wished. Much of the film is “a story,” is told without words anyway, and it’s arguably the most effective section of the film, regardless of how good Rylance is or how thrilling it is to see the fighter planes in combat. Whitehead is an excellent protagonist for the section of the film that takes place on the beach, and his interactions with It’s that particular silence, that otherworldliness, that makes so much of Dunkirk eerie, and it manages to register shades of a film like The Thin Red Line in it’s quieter moments. The sparseness is ultimately its own thing, as, unlike in Malick’s work, there’s no voiceover to guide you through the film or to offer some knowing respite from the intensity, and in this film’s case, it’s a strength. Yet Nolan seems more interested in drawing from great Russian filmmakers like Tarkovsky (bits and pieces of Ivan’s Childhood and Andrei Rublev pop up in certain framing and textures) and Eisenstein (there’s a fascinating essay about the inversion of the end of Battleship Potemkin that occurs near the end of this film, especially in the larger context of the aims and goals of certain Soviet films) than from the milk of the modern war cinema. As such, it feels fresh and new, even though it’s drawing from men like Eisenstein, who made their best work even before the Miracle of Dunkirk happened.

All in all, Dunkirk is a towering achievement. I’m even going to throw the “M” word around as well, as it’s my favorite of his films and what I would most likely hold up as his “masterpiece.” It’s certainly going to be one of the most decisive major releases of the year, thanks to a structure that’s confusing on the surface and not audience-friendly and also to his legion of fanboys, who make it difficult to evaluate his films or challenge them in meaningful ways due to their intensity, but thankfully the film is brilliant enough to rise above all that chaff. In an era in which we’re miserably divided by the most random of things, from the big and important issues to the most insignificant things in the world, it’s nice to be reminded of the fundamental courage and decency of the common man, and their continued survival in open defiance of a powerful evil.

See Dunkirk as soon as you can.

Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.