It was still just the early months of World War II, but it was beginning to look like the end. In the last week of May 1940, more than 300,000 British soldiers along with French, Belgian, and Canadian troops were beaten back to the beaches of Dunkirk by the Germans. A small coastal town at the northernmost point of France, Dunkirk was an especially unfortunate place to be pinned down. The harbor was so shallow that large British naval ships couldn’t get close enough for a rescue. The men on the beach were stranded with nowhere to go. Lined up in columns on the sand, they were sitting ducks waiting for either deliverance or, more likely, death. Perhaps the cruelest irony of all was that they could actually see the coast of England just 26 miles across the channel. Salvation was so close, yet so far.
From that seemingly hopeless situation sprang one of Britain’s finest moments of the war. Had all of those soldiers been slaughtered or taken prisoner, Britain would have, in all likelihood, been forced to surrender to Hitler. The history books wouldn’t just look very different today, they’d also be printed in German. But thanks to countless civilian sailors who assembled a flotilla of small, non-military ships and pleasure boats to cross the channel and evacuate their boys, the country stayed alive to fight another day. In the decades since that death-defying turning point in the war (codename: Operation Dynamo), Dunkirk has become synonymous with stiff-upper-lip British resolve—a shining example of how to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
This race-against-the-clock rescue operation (and the tense days leading up to it) is the subject of Christopher Nolan’s miraculous new massive-canvas epic, Dunkirk. Nolan has for all intents and purposes conjured the British response to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. If you can imagine that film’s kinetic, nerve-wracking 29-minute opening D-Day invasion stretched out to feature length, this is what it would look like. It’s a towering achievement, not just of the sort of drum-tight storytelling we’ve come to expect from the director of Memento, The Dark Knight, and Inception, but also of old-school, handmade filmmaking.
I don’t think the director would mind being called “old school.” I certainly don’t mean it as a backhanded compliment. Like Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson, he’s a throwback and cinema purist who’s messianic in his belief in celluloid. He argues (convincingly, I’d say, from the evidence on display) that something ineffable gets lost in all of those cold ones and zeroes of digital technology: the warmth, grain, and poetry of actual film stock. Shot in 65 mm and IMAX film (if you live near an IMAX theater, spring for the upgrade), Dunkirk is a totally immersive experience. For two hours, all of your senses are taken over.
Nolan, who also wrote the film, tells his story from three different perspectives: land, sea, and air. And he weaves his three narrative threads together seamlessly. On the ground, the story zooms in on a young, scared baby-faced infantryman named Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead), who scrambles amidst the falling bombs and chaos to stay alive until he can be rescued. He doesn’t say much. He doesn’t have to. You can read the fear and confusion on his face. On the sea, we’re on board a sailboat called Moonstone with its stoic captain (Mark Rylance) and his teenage son and his son’s best friend. As they motor across the channel to do what they believe is their duty and shepherd the boys out of harm’s way, they take on a shell-shocked survivor of a torpedo attack (Cillian Murphy) who protests going back to the hell he just escaped from. And in the air, we are in the cockpit of a Spitfire with a cool-under-pressure RAF pilot (Tom Hardy), who’s flying on fumes and dogfighting against German planes providing cover to the doomed men on the ground.
Nolan cuts between these there arenas of combat slowly at first, then faster and faster, heightening the sense of urgency and danger. His editing is like a metronome, picking up speed and nail-biting suspense. We’ve come to expect the exceptional from Nolan as a visualist over the years, but what sets Dunkirk apart from his previous films is how his visual language is heightened by what we’re hearing. A pulsing, pounding beat on the soundtrack feels like the blood rushing into your eardrums during a panic attack. The sound of a stopwatch ticking adds a sense of ratcheting tension until you almost can’t take it anymore. Layered on top of it all is Hans Zimmer’s propulsive score. Zimmer, an A-list composer who has provided some of the more bombastic scores to the past decade’s biggest blockbusters, has dialed down the orchestral shock and awe here and has gone for something more harrowing and unrelenting (in a good way). As fine as some of the performances are (especially Rylance’s and Hardy’s), this isn’t a film of big, dramatic, for-your-consideration moments. (For the One Direction fans wondering, Harry Styles is also solid, seamlessly blending into the ensemble.) It’s a full-body sensory experience that sweeps you up in its thrall and places you directly into the fog of war. It leaves you emotionally exhausted by the time the end credits roll.
By the end of Dunkirk, what stands out the most isn’t its inspirational message or everyday heroism. It’s the small indelible, unshakeable images that accumulate like the details in the corner of a mural. A PTSD soldier walking into the surf to his death. The sight of a hit German plane silently pinwheeling down into the sea like a paper airplane. The female nurses handing out tea and comforting words to the haunted men when they’re rescued. This is visceral, big-budget filmmaking that can be called Art. It’s also, hands down, the best motion picture of the year so far. A