From first frame to last, Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is a monumental achievement, a World War II epic of staggering visual spectacle (see it in IMAX if you can) that hits you like a shot in the heart. Leave it to a filmmaking virtuoso at the peak of his powers to break both new ground and all the rules – who else would make a triumphant war film about a crushing Allied defeat? And who but Nolan, born in London to a British father and an American mother, would tackle WWII without America in it?
The time is 1940, and the Yanks haven't yet entered the hostilities. There are 400,000 British, French, Canadian and Belgian soldiers trapped on the beaches of a small French town called Dunkirk, all waiting to be evacuated before they're wiped out by the might of Hitler on land, sea and air. The Allied troops are sitting ducks, caught in a vise of tension that the director makes throat-catchingly palpable on screen. It's a brutal irony that the English Channel, a 26-mile stretch of water, is so close the British soldiers can squint and see home. But the water is too shallow for large rescue ships; only small boats and private yachts can get in. A miracle is needed in the form of a mini-armada manned by civilians. A miracle is what they get.
Aside from Nolan's 1998 feature debut Following, Dunkirk – at a tight, transfixing 106 minutes – is the shortest entry in the filmmaker's back catalog. What the writer-director has done here, besides keeping dialogue to a minimum, is remove the backstory and cut to the chase. We're right there in the battle and on the beaches, feeling what these young soldiers feel as they cope with the buzz of looming death and sudden blasts of bone-chilling, pulse-pounding terror. The ticking-clock urgency and immediacy takes your breath away. And if you thought Nolan screwed around with space and time in Memento and Inception, wait till you see the linear leaps he makes in this film so that audiences can see the same event from interlocking perspectives over an hour, a day, a week.
Newcomer Fionn Whitehead excels as Tommy, the movie's universal soldier and the representation of all the raw recruits trapped on the beach. He joins up two other soldiers – Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles, playing a small role with subtle grace and zero pop-star showboating). They want to make it to "the mole," a pier where vessels await orders from naval Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and army Col. Winnant (James D'Arcy). It's Tommy's plan to gain access to a hospital ship. Naturally, what can go wrong does. Nolan never shows us the enemy; he makes the Nazis as abstract and suddenly lethal as they are to the men on the beach.
Meanwhile, in the air, Spitfire fighter planes are assigned to provide cover on the beach and shoot down Luftwaffe bombers. Dunkirk focuses most on Farrier, a Royal Air Force Spitfire pilot played by Tom Hardy, his face mostly hidden behind a mask (shades of Bane) but whose demeanour tells a complete story. The aerial sequences are like nothing you've ever seen, as Nolan hoists his cameras up through the cockpit and into the wild blue yonder, without the use of green screens or phony digital effects. You are right there in the middle of these dizzying dogfights, and the experience is both frightening and thrilling.
On the sea, we watch Dawson, played by Oscar winner Mark Rylance, manoeuvre his own yacht, the Moonstone, across the Channel, with the help of his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a local kid (Barry Keoghan) eager to join the fray. The boat crew picks up a shivering soldier (the excellent Cillian Murphy) whose ship has been torpedoed and whose eyes reflect a horror he can't articulate. The cast is reliably superb, but this is not a film that needs or encourages star turns – it's as fine and unselfish a display of ensemble acting as you'll see anywhere.
Which is exactly as it should be. Nolan's film is, above all, a celebration of communal heroism – the "Dunkirk spirit" that enabled these soldiers, despite heavy casualties, to fight another day. As the new British Prime Minister Winston Churchill would later say, "Wars are not won on evacuations." Had Hitler pursued the fight on the beaches and forced a surrender, we'd all be living a real version of The Man in the High Castle.
So it's impossible to overstate the importance of this battle, especially to the people of Great Britain. To outsiders, especially here in Trump's America, the significance might be lost – or even be counted as a spoiler. Nolan has changed all that with a film that speaks to soldiers and noncombatants working together to forge a bond out of suffering. Though the film is alive with action and Hitchcock-level suspense, the intimate moments are just as shattering. In contrast to the R-rated savagery of the Normandy invasion in Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, the filmmaker takes a PG-13 approach that writes its story of the faces of those in the thick of it.
And in his attempt to record history realistically onscreen, Nolan rejects computer tricks in favour of practical effects, using thousands of extras and whatever boats and planes he could find from the era. The impact is incalculable and indelible. Cheers to camera wiz Hoyte van Hoytema, editor Lee Smith, composer Hans Zimmer (listen for the tick-tock in his score) and a next-level soundscape for sustaining a breakneck pace without losing the personal toll taken on its characters. This is not a film about politics or the major figures of the era (a Churchill speech is heard, but only as read by a soldier on the ground). In fact, Nolan argues that he hasn't made a war film at all, but a story of survival. Point taken. But there's little doubt that he has, without sentimentality or sanctimony, raised that genre to the level of art. Dunkirk is a landmark with the resonant force of an enduring screen classic. The Oscar race for Best Picture is officially on.