It’s hard to make a good World War II movie, and even harder to make a great one. It’s easy to see what would draw a filmmaker to this storied sub-genre: ready-made dramatic conflict, easily defined heroes and villains and inspiring stories of courage and valor are often the name of the game. But everyone seems to make one at some point, and such ventures are often lacking in originality or new ideas.
With Dunkirk, however, the veteran filmmaker Christopher Nolan manages to make a war picture feel fresh again. He pulls this off with a combination of pure craftsmanship and creative storytelling and sound design, resulting in the best war film since, at least, Letters from Iwo Jima, and one that may go down as one of the best ever made.
Nolan takes no time dropping us into the heart of the conflict (at a surprisingly brief 106 minutes, it’s his shortest movie besides Following, his very first film). Hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers are stranded on the beach and Dunkirk, awaiting rescue. The British troops can see their homeland across the waters, so close and yet so far away. But the conflict is not over yet: German airplanes are bombing the beaches and making it difficult for any large military vessels to get close. Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) is leading the effort to evacuate the troops, but time is running out, and he resigns himself to the possibility that only a handful of troops will ever leave Dunkirk.
We also spend some time with a group of young soldiers trying desperately to survive. These lads are played by some very strong unknowns, including Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Tom Glynn-Carney and a surprisingly good Harry Styles (yes, THAT Harry Styles).
For a while, it seems as though Nolan is going to have the audience view the conflict mostly from the perspective of Whitehead’s Tommy. This type of painfully intimate style has been used to great effect in foreign classics like Come and See and the recent holocaust film Son of Saul. But it’s soon clear that Nolan is reaching for a much grander scope, something more along the lines of The Longest Day or The Thin Red Line.
Nolan utilizes three intersecting perspectives and timelines to give us a full scope of the conflict. In addition to the soldiers on the beach, we also spend some time inside the cockpit of pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) and in a schooner manned by Dawson (Mark Rylance). While Farrier tries desperately to take down the German planes bombing the beach, Dawson is one of dozens called by the military to man their personal vessels to get as many soldiers off the beach as possible.
This twisting structure gives us bits and pieces of the full picture at a time, and allows us to see the same events, such as a plane crash and a sinking ship, from multiple perspectives. This is a risky way to structure a film, and an easy way to confuse your audience, but Nolan is a master at pulling multiple threads without letting any of them go, and his script is air tight and perfectly paced.
Speaking of masters, Hans Zimmer provides one of the film’s most memorable characters. His musical score is an active instigator in the action, providing ominous heavy bass and tight strings that slowly rise in speed and intensity until the effect is almost unbearable. It’s a brilliant piece of work, and one that contributes a great deal of the film’s emotional heft.
Along with the gripping score, the overall sound design is some of the best ever put to screen. I watched the film in IMAX, and I jumped in my seat every time a bullet was shot. Every sound element is designed to drop us directly into the conflict, and, in one unbearably tense scene in particular, I felt like an actual soldier whose escape vessel was slowly being riddled with gunfire.
This immersion extends to the cinematography, which is breathtaking. Nolan and Hoyte Van Hoytema shot the film with IMAX cameras, and the result is a sense of realism and scope that is unparalleled in modern cinema. The camera may have us inside the cockpit of a fighter plane one moment, and then in the air, taking in the beauty of the landscape the next. The claustrophobia underneath the decks of a sinking battleship, as water slowly rises and soldiers gasp for their final breaths, is quickly juxtaposed with sweeping shots of the beach and the vast ocean that laps its shores.
All of these elements combine to make for one relentlessly intense viewing experience. Theaters should post a warning outside conveying the risk of heart failure. The cumulative effect is almost unbearable, and I’ve never seen a war film that has done a more effective job at immersing me in its time and space.
Thankfully, Dunkirk isn’t the type of experience you endure and then forget. Like most of Nolan’s work, it reaches much farther into the guts of what it means to sacrifice. Seeing dozens of civilian boats come to the aid of desperate soldiers is inspiring, but the scenes that most grabbed me were the ones of quiet redemption. Without giving much away, a scene where Dawson decides to avoid telling a rescued soldier the most heartbreaking news imaginable reminded me of the grace and beauty of everyday acts of kindness. There is just as much honor and heroism in forgiving your enemy as there is in saving yourself from them.
Don’t let the July release fool you: Dunkirk is a powerful work of art, and Nolan’s least commercially palatable film since Memento. His contemplative, poetic approach will not be for everyone. In both scale and theme, it very much recalls Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, which is my all-time favorite war film. The fact that any movie could begin to approach the brilliance of Malick’s masterpiece shows just what a rare and wonderful experience Dunkirk really is, and what a true visionary we have in Christopher Nolan.