“Dunkirk” is an experience of paradoxes, which should come as no surprise to the legions of cinephiles at Christopher Nolan’s feet. It is viscerally overwhelming yet emotionally underwhelming; an objective look at three subjective points of view; dramatically closed-in but spatially vast. Weaving these compelling contradictions is Nolan’s everlasting fascination with time. As with his previous work, time is truly of the essence for both the film’s subjects and the filmmakers. Waste a moment on air, sea, or land, and the Allied soldiers fleeing the enemy during World War II will surely meet their doom. Make a cut too quick or too late, and Nolan loses the tension he so elegantly creates. “Dunkirk” has all the hallmarks that make for a quintessential Christopher Nolan film: The expert cross-cutting that never hinders coherency, the brushstroke precision in his images - photographed by Hoyte van Hoytema, and the desire to impact the viewer with the biggest and the best that Hollywood can offer. All the same, I can’t quite shake the feeling that this isn’t the absolute best I’ve seen the director, and I’m kicking myself over it since this film is one of the year’s greatest big screen experiences.
For his next time-traveling trick following “Inception” and “The Prestige,” Nolan focuses on three perspectives of the disastrous Dunkirk evacuation during the summer of 1940. At the mole, Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead) desperately tries to flee the beach with his fellow soldiers, facing danger and death at every turn. At sea, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) venture to save as many soldiers as they can, encountering a shellshocked lieutenant (Cillain Murphy) along the way. In the air, Spitfire pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) fends of the Luftwaffe as they zero in on the escaping soldiers. Nolan and trusted editor Lee Smith teleport through these perspectives as if it were physically capable for them, building to a climax where time and space finally align for all three.
“Dunkirk” can be viewed as the antithesis of “Inception,” as it creates impact without an ounce of exposition. Nolan correctly seizes the opportunity to make a bare-bones thriller out of this historic event, ditching the Jack-and-Rose method of entrancing viewers into an already exhilarating space. And when I say “exhilarating,” I mean something along the lines of “thunderously chaotic.” I’m not sure how it might be at the average theater, but in IMAX, “Dunkirk” is one of the loudest film’s in recent memory, but nowhere near as cacophonous as a Michael Bay joint. Gunshots pop like lightning, and planes soar overhead with the screech of a steampunk dragon. Even more jarring is Hans Zimmer’s score, which acts more as a punctuation of the harrowing sound design than a melodic underpinning. One might expect such violent sounds to be met with violent results, yet there is hardly an ounce of blood in this stirring photograph of the bloodiest war in history. Nolan is more concerned with the uncertainty of violence, whether or not it will befall the boys fleeing the scene. This is closest thing to a horror film Nolan has ever made.
“Dunkirk” is also something of a return to form circa “Memento,” as time is bent to the will of the artist so obsessed with the ticking clock - a sound that forms the basis of Zimmer’s score. Nolan’s structural approach finally allows him to break free from the chains of convention that grounded the ambitions of “The Dark Knight Trilogy” and “Interstellar” that probably deserved a more fantastical touch. It is wonderful to see a filmmaker so entranced by big ideas tackle something so straightforward, yet I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that I miss that side of Nolan. Watching him go full Time Lord with narratives like this further proves his worth as one of the great technical minds in Hollywood today, but I find him more interesting when bound by convention, when the suppression of his time-turning powers allows him to truly pull us into his creations.
I am, by no means, trying to denote the impact of “Dunkirk,” which is so profound that you may be inclined to dismiss the rest of the summer lineup as cannon fodder. It is one of many great films that Nolan has made, and requires a trip to the biggest screen possible. He has fulfilled the promise of delivering “virtual reality without the headset,” but I wonder if he considered whether or not virtual reality can engage us emotionally. Maybe I actually need to try VR, or maybe I missed something and require another viewing. Or perhaps the younger me is having mild difficulty embracing the new non-philosophical Nolan. Either way, I probably need a gun pointed at my head to convince me that “Dunkirk” really is the masterpiece everyone says it is. What I can say with absolute certainty is that it works best as a moving portrait of a moment in our history, powered by visual and aural intensity. Consider yourself shell-shook.