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Even Christopher Nolan Skeptics Will Be Wowed by Dunkirk

The Inception filmmaker’s World War II epic is a triumph of—of all things—simplicity.

Fionn Whitehead as Tommy in Dunkirk.
Fionn Whitehead as Tommy in Dunkirk.
Syncopy/Warner Bros.

The notion of Christopher Nolan making a historically accurate World War II picture—especially one focused on the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk, among the most mythologized events of the war in Nolan’s native England—didn’t sound promising. Nolan’s films, especially in his post–The Dark Knight phase, have often tended toward operatic maximalism. Whatever your opinion of Inception, his speculative sci-fi thriller from 2010, there’s no denying it was a movie that crammed an impressive lot in: a lot of big ideas, a lot of nested alternate realities and concurrent time loops, a lot of mind-bending visual effects. But for all its ambition and energy, I found Inception’s nonstop intensity and hammering soundtrack exhausting. The idea of a similarly grandiose re-enactment of one of military history’s largest-scale rescue operations seemed all but doomed to be elephantine. In addition, Nolan’s famously fertile imagination sounded potentially dangerous in combination with a true historical event incredible enough to require no dramatic embellishment.

And that, my friends, will serve as my yearly reminder never to go into a movie with preconceived ideas. The swift-moving, pulse-pounding Dunkirk reveals its filmmaker at his most nimble, supple, and simple—all adjectives that seem strange to use in connection with a movie shot in 65 mm Imax format, using practical effects and real stunts to re-create such large-scale events as the sinking of a WWII destroyer and the attempted mass evacuation of more than 300,000 men. But Dunkirk’s simplicity inheres not in its production logistics but in its storytelling.

In a radical move, Dunkirk entirely does away with the narrative scaffolding that holds together most war pictures: the introduction, at boot camp or in battle, of a crew of soldierly comrades. The scenes of military higher-ups debating strategy over maps. The cutaways to families waiting back home or flashbacks to the combatants’ prewar days. Instead, the film plunges us straight in medias res, or rather in the middle of several different res: Dunkirk follows stories unfolding in three separate places not at the same time but in three overlapping time frames: one lasting a week, one a day, and one only an hour.

The weeklong story takes place at and around “The Mole,” the name given to a ramshackle 8-foot-wide pier on Dunkirk beach on the French coast where the British forces have been trapped, along with their allies, by the advancing German army. Without either shelter or a port suitable for large-scale evacuation, the hundreds of thousands of soldiers on the beach are open targets for bombing runs—and as the Navy commander in charge (Kenneth Branagh) is well-aware, the presence of British forces on the beach at Dunkirk, however imperiled, represents the last bulwark against the Nazi invasion of the British mainland.

Cut to time frame two, “The Sea” (these section titles flash on the screen only once, after which the three separate stories intermix freely). Here, on the English side of the channel, a quiet middle-aged man called only Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) is readying his small wooden pleasure boat, the Moonstone, for a trip that sounds anything but pleasurable. Along with his teenage son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), Mr. Dawson has decided to answer his country’s call for a fleet of civilian seagoing crafts to help ferry the trapped soldiers to safety in their home country. At the last minute, Peter’s naïve friend George (Barry Keoghan) decides to join the expedition as well. Not long after setting sail, this group picks up a shell-shocked survivor (Cillian Murphy) from the wreck of a torpedoed ship. Against this unnamed soldier’s fierce objections, the Moonstone crew plows on, taking him back toward the hell he’s only just managed to escape.

Time frame three, “The Air,” takes place in an hour above the beaches and waters of the English Channel. Two crack Royal Air Force fighter pilots, Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy), fly a series of strategic sorties, attempting to pick off the Luftwaffe planes that keep arriving to strafe the escape boats below. At times the pilots’ flight paths intersect with the stories of the soldiers and civilians attempting to find safe passage, lending the battle scenes at sea an extra layer of dramatic irony. When you know the identity of both rescuer and rescue-ee, the welcome swooping-in of Allied planes signals not only that help is on the way, but that the brave men in the cockpits may be about to give their lives to provide it.

The degree to which the viewer does or does not “get to know” the characters in this intimate yet somehow impersonal movie may be a point of contention among audiences. Dunkirk is a portrait of a military and humanitarian operation more than it is a study of a group of individuals. It isn’t that big on characterization or, for that matter, dialogue—a good deal of which is inaudible thanks to the near-constant cacophony of plane crashes, gunfire, and explosions. And the closest thing this ensemble piece has to a protagonist—a very young soldier played by Fionn Whitehead—is not only nearly silent but sometimes difficult to distinguish from two of his fellow survivors (Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles), especially when they’re covered in oil and grime from the various bombed and capsized ships they’ve abandoned.

Though this movie brims with scarily immersive you-are-there action (captured by Hoyte van Hoytema’s mysteriously mobile-yet-unshaky handheld Imax camera and soundtracked by Hans Zimmer’s braaamm-less yet effective score), it works on the emotions in a different way than most war movies. The event it documents—sometimes referred to as the Miracle of Dunkirk—was, in strictly military terms, the opposite of a victory. Evacuating the beach was the Allies’ last remotely possible escape from a rout so complete that the Allies’ only hope was to try to stay alive long enough for the next battle. But it was also, for those civilian seagoers called on to aid in the effort, the only and obvious right thing to do.

Most of the people whose paths cross on the fateful week, day, and hour chronicled in Dunkirk are strangers to one another. Their only goal—which, with a few ugly exceptions, they struggle toward together—is to keep one another alive long enough to get safely home. Rylance’s performance as the modest but courageous Mr. Dawson captures the heroism of such everyday civic virtue without a spare word or gesture, as Mark Rylance performances are wont to do. And the fact that most of the actors playing soldiers are not only relative unknowns but baby-faced near-teenagers drives home with extra force our foreknowledge that the war to come will reap so many more unknown young lives.

Dunkirk ends with one of these boyish survivors reading aloud from a newspaper Winston Churchill’s famous speech to the House of Commons after the Dunkirk evacuation (“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields …”). A more traditional war picture might have played us these lines in Churchill’s own voice—the audio exists and is very impressive, just the thing for exiting the theater on a note of uplift. But Nolan, who also wrote the script, knew that this now-familiar oration (Churchill’s pep talk to a country he had just become prime minister of three weeks before) would land differently when spoken in the tentative voice of a traumatized soldier all too aware that the “we” about to be sent back to the fight includes him.