A sustained ambience of dread invades every moment of "Dunkirk," writer-director Christopher Nolan's (2014's "Interstellar
") remarkably mounted, ceaselessly intense World War II epic. From May 26 to June 4, 1940, an evacuation attempt of 400,000 Allied soldiers took place on the shores of Dunkirk, France, as German forces closed in from all sides. While this operation ultimately went down as a defeat for the British and French armies, more than 338,000 men were transported to safety over a grueling eight-day period. In war, how can survival be counted as anything other than a victory? It is this latter point which Nolan vividly makes again and again, not via words but through frequently astonishing visual storytelling which places the viewer squarely in the shoes of its brave, frightened, imperiled human subjects.
An immersive experience nearly impossible to sit back and watch with detachment, "Dunkirk" economically depicts this harrowing event from three vantage pointsland, sea, and airplaying out simultaneously across three timeframes (one week, one day, and one hour). Its structure is ingenious, cohesively capturing every side of this struggle without compromising the reality of what, and how, it occurred, while Lee Smith's (2013's "Elysium
") taut, uncompromised editing is nothing short of tremendous.
We are alongside British Army private Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) from the opening moments, racing through the eerily barren, paper-strewn city streets and dodging enemy fire as he makes his way to the beach where hundreds of thousands of stranded soldiers await rescue. We are with him when he and Army private Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) try to catch a departing British ship on the harbor's protective mole, an injured man on a stretcher in their arms and no guarantee they themselves will be admitted on board. Across the English Channel is Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), teenage son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Peter's friend George (Barry Keoghan), daring to risk their safety as they set off on a tugboat for Dunkirk, determined to pick up as many servicemen as they can carry. In the sky are Royal Air Force fighter pilots Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy), doing everything they can to shoot down German aerial bombers before they take more lives.
If these characters feel like they are trapped in a nightmare the likes of which they never could have imagined only a couple years prior, director Christopher Nolan makes it his mission to emulate their sense of confusion, desperation, and terror as best he can. This, above all, is where "Dunkirk" gets its unsparing power. The quiet lulls, the nervous waiting, the fear of each approaching sound and the horrors which may beand likely arecoming at any moment are all masterfully portrayed. Hans Zimmer's (2016's "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
") music is like the best classic horror score never before discovered, a threateningly propulsive cavalcade of unearthly sounds, complexly ominous rhythms, and portentous air raids. Hoyte van Hoytema's (2015's "Spectre
") cinematography brings mesmeric scope to the beautiful landscapes and horribly treacherous strife occurring there. Each technical achievementand the picture is close to flawless on this frontadds up, serving to envelop, captivate, and leave one on edge.
Thorough and comprehensive despite playing out over a tight 107 minutes, "Dunkirk" gets to the darkened, hellish heart of war. In an ensemble where character development is kept to a minimumwho would have time to relay their life story as they struggle to make it out alive, anyway?the actors are superb across the board, disappearing into their roles (and this includes musician Harry Styles, who disappears so fully into his part as outspoken British Army private Alex he is barely recognizable). If the film is a deft buoy of continuous suspense, of formidable spatial and action choreography, and of unsuspecting psychological meditation, one can only dream of what might have been had the brutality of its violence matched the veracity of its every other element. Keeping within the boundaries of a PG-13 rating when the gravity of war should be anything but sanitized, Nolan's virtually bloodless attacks are the one element that doesn't ring with the same truth as what surrounds it. Fortunately, his filmmaking is so assured and so muscular this observation warrants but a footnote. "Dunkirk" is one of the great war pictures of our time, deserving of being in the same conversation as Oliver Stone's "Platoon," Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line
," and the 22-minute D-Day sequence from Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan." It's haunting, it's rapturous, and it's unforgettable.