Review: Christopher Nolan's 'Dunkirk' Raises The Bar For WWII Movies

Far from be it from me to say that Christopher Nolan has been slacking lately, but...he's been slacking lately. Interstellar was a colossal disappointment, full of gravitas and grand stakes but limited actual entertainment value. As much as we all respect The Dark Knight Rises it's the weakest of his Batman trilogy, and does anybody really talk about Inception anymore? Personally I find it too taxing to really watch anymore. Nolan needed to do something new, something  that would let him continue to work on a massive scale but with the intimacy of his early thrillers.  I don't think anyone would have expected that to be Dunkirk, Nolan's fictionalized account of the 1940s Allied evacuation of hundreds of thousands of soldiers pressed against the brink by advancing German forces.

Dunkirk is simply one of the best war movies ever made. Period. The reason has less to do with Nolan's extensive use of IMAX cameras, which make it a priority you see this on the grandest IMAX screen possible, but in how Nolan does away with the storytelling structure we are so accustomed to in war movies. This isn't about a contingent of soldiers trying to take a hill, or capture an enemy officer, or rescue hostages. There's no extended boot camp ala Full Metal Jacket, where soldiers bond and learn to trust one another on the battlefield. No, instead Nolan drops us right into the thick, with bombs splashing down all around our ears.

I don't know if my heart stopped racing for all of Dunkirk's brisk, unbearably tense 107-minute runtime. There are no signature heroes to follow, but there are plenty of heroes to be found. They are simple people making big sacrifices to either help the cause, or just simply to survive. Nolan splits the narrative in three ways, following events with three different timestamps. Chapter 1's "The Mole" takes place over a week as British officer Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) navigates the bombed-out beaches in hopes of getting home, along with the thousands of other officers trapped there. "The Sea", taking place over one day, follows an ordinary but patriotic middle-aged man (Mark Rylance), his teenaged son (Tom Glynn-Carney, who looks like an extra from Hairspray), and his eager, perhaps ignorant friend (Barry Keoghan) as they answer Winston Churchill's call for help from civilian seamen. Totally defenseless, they navigate bravely into the middle of the German bombing runs in hopes or finding any Allied soldiers in need of rescue. They find one, a shell-shocked survivor(Cillian Murphy) of a downed vessel. Tensions aboard the tiny craft rise as he refuses to be taken anywhere near Dunkirk again, even if it's to rescue his mates.

The escaping fleet receives support in "The Air", set to one hour, the amount of time each pilot has in air before refueling. It's here that we see Tom Hardy as ace fighter pilot Farrier, as he and fellow pilot Collins (Jack Lowden) pick off the German Luftwaffes as they try to gun down not only the fleeing Allies, but the unarmed civilian vessels. These scenes show off the best of Nolan's use of IMAX, making for some of the most realistic aerial dogfights captured on screen. They aren't guns blazing spectacles like you would see in Top Gun, but they are given such range and scope as to take one's breath away. The concerns of flying back then are technical; a broken fuel gauge might throw everything off, and then what do you do? You'll find yourself calculating Farrier's mileage right alongside him as if you were sitting in that cockpit, too.

At first, Nolan's staggered timeline seems too clever by half, and it becomes confusing as certain characters pop up in other scenes looking less ragged. But as the situation in all three segments begins to worse, you see them crossing over more often and in ways that are consistently exciting. They also provide moments of unexpected emotional heft, as common acts of decency lead to profound affects on such a brutal world stage. Speaking of brutal, Nolan really captures, better than any war movie I've seen, just how awful it must be to be a common soldier on the ground. Every plane that flies overhead could bring fiery death in a moment's notice. Even the water isn't safe as enemy torpedoes could send you to a watery grave.

There will still be some who complain about how cold and impersonal it all feels, and that argument does hold some weight. There at no lengthy monologues, although Kenneth Branagh does turn up for a few scenes as an optimistic British commander with some choice words of support. But we don't really need to hear much from these men of action; they are defined by their Herculean deeds. And Nolan clearly feels a sense of pride for his countrymen that is reflected in his adherence to history. Dunkirk respects the history while providing maximum blockbuster entertainment, a nearly heroic feat for any filmmaker, even one of Nolan's considerable talent.

Rating: 4 out of 5