Christopher Nolan’s filmography, now ten entries and two decades deep, features more hits than any other filmmaker in recent memory. Whether it’s his original works, those written with his brother Jonah, or their adaptations of one of the most popular superheroes in existence, his films regularly rank among the year’s best regardless of their competition. Even his less-loved films, like 2014’s Interstellar or the oft-maligned The Dark Knight Rises (assessments I don’t totally agree with) are unique visions that couldn’t have been made by anyone else.
Dunkirk is no different. It’s a spectacle in the truest sense, featuring 106 of non-stop wartime action that doesn’t let up until it’s over. Even then, chances are it’s going to stick with you for a while after seeing it.
Dunkirk‘s story spans three interlocking pieces: the beach, the sea, and the air. On the ground, hundreds of thousands of men await their opportunity for retreat from France to England. Among them are Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles), two soldiers who have had their fill of the war and will do whatever it takes to get to England as quickly as possible. Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) is in charge of getting the soldiers to safety—a nearly insurmountable task thanks to constant attacks by enemy troops.
On the sea, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) set sail for Dunkirk to aid in the retreat with George (Barry Keoghan). They pick up a soldier neck-deep in PTSD (Cillian Murphy) on their way.
In the air, Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy) do their best to take out German planes and keep the soldiers and rescuers below alive and well.
Being a Nolan film, these three pieces all occur over different (though overlapping) time periods and are presented in non-linear fashion. You weren’t expecting a straightforward presentation, were you?
Dunkirk is full of tension and difficult situations for everyone involved. The soldiers on the ground struggle to find a way out only to have it destroyed by the Germans before repeating the whole cycle again. Personal conflict runs rampant on Mr. Dawson’s boat as the soldier refuses to go back to Dunkirk. Farrier’s fuel gage doesn’t work and becomes a source of almost guaranteed tragedy once he’s the only one left in the air.
It’s chaotic and stressful. The horrors of war are omnipresent, though not in the bloody, corpse-ridden sense of most war movies. Dunkirk instead relies on the emotional horrors of war, placing viewers right in the middle of the action from the start and keeping the danger and tension on blast until the credits roll. It’s a constant frenzy, a presentation of bombast and spectacle above all else.
Dunkirk is visually stunning. It’s confidently shot and its lean running time is a testament to its full-throttle take on war. Hans Zimmer’s score is thrilling and every bit as epic as it should be, but it never distracts from what’s happening on screen. Its story is strong and its presentation stronger, but its characters often felt more like pieces of a puzzle than actual human beings—to the point that I had to look up the name of every single character mentioned in this review.
The characters are meant to be cared about because they’ve fought and struggled and they continue to fight and struggle, but they aren’t given the chance to be anything more than they are exactly in this moment. That lack of an emotional connection on a personal level keeps Dunkirk from becoming something truly magnificent—which, to be fair, leaves it firmly in the realm of ‘incredible,’ which isn’t a bad place to be.
Nolan has been praised repeatedly for his films’ existence at the crossing of art and entertainment. He’s an auteur like few others working today, and Dunkirk is yet another strong entry into what I’d argue is the single best filmography of any filmmaker in the past quarter century. It’s lean and hard-hitting, and it’s without a doubt among the most significant films released this year—this century, even. It’s not perfect, but it comes dangerously close.
Nolan’s outspoken stance against Netflix films might seem like an unnecessary fight, but the truly epic scale of the films he makes, especially Dunkirk, provide a clear explanation for why he feels the way he does. Dunkirk is a massive, breathtaking work of art that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible. If you have the ability to get to a 70mm IMAX screening, do it.
Dunkirk is a gorgeous film—a stunning brush against perfection. War movies aren’t typically my thing, and Dunkirk is far from my favorite Christopher Nolan movie, but Dunkirk‘s sheer magnitude and the quality on display in every second of its breathtaking, heart-pounding action demand to be recognized. It’s among the year’s best films, and it’s one not to be missed.