Director Christopher Nolan's latest Dunkirk opens on a bit of an intimate shot. As a group of English soldiers run towards safety, fliers fall from the sky. It's a threat from the Nazis that is made more difficult by the reality that they're on an island and an air strike would likely kill the 400,000 men like sitting ducks. There's desperation and uncertainty in the air as they finally approach that safety: a beach where the rest of the film will take place. The Nazis have made escape nigh impossible without a torpedo to the side of a ship. Much like Nolan's other films, there is a mystery at play. How do these men survive against an unseen enemy? By finally tackling a nonfiction story, Nolan has managed to centralize his tendencies as a director and delivered one of the most breathtaking, horrifying, and gorgeous cinematic experiences of the decade. It's a film that molds the war genre to Nolan's whim, and in the process makes something both reverential of classic cinema and a sign of a new horizon ahead.
The heart of the movie is Hans Zimmer's score. There's a pulse to the music, which builds with the tension, dropping out only in moments of sheer terror or relief. In the interim, it's his job to pull your heartstrings and make you feel the fear that Nolan is showing before us. Without a traditional lead character, the film's three ongoing plots reflect different sides of the struggle to get British soldiers home. The only issue is that the Nazi fighter planes are a few steps ahead, and Zimmer's intense score is often met with jump scares that capture the unpredictable nature of a bomb colliding with the ground. The characters are thrown into panic as they run across the beach or think craftily aboard ships. They are at a disadvantage, yet have the faith and support of the town folk to pull off a near impossible goal. They will get home, even if that means passing through a sea of chaos and destruction.
Much like Nolan's other films, this also plays with time. The three settings all take place during different time intervals. The first ("The Mole") are the soldiers on the beach who desperately scramble to get aboard any ship that will take them home, otherwise finding themselves met with bombs. The second ("The Sea") follows a man (Mark Rylance) as he steers his yacht through danger to rescue stranded soldiers. The third ("The Air") follows fighter pilots as they protect everyone from above like guardian angels. The Mole takes place over a week, The Sea a day, and The Air an hour. If this seems confusing to follow, just know that Nolan isn't filming this in order or real time. Instead, he presents the information as necessary, finding a balance between chaos and peace. Like the waves underneath the boats, he ebbs and flows perfectly through each scene while finding ways to add humanity to characters who largely lack a back story.
Is that an issue? Not necessarily. After all, Dunkirk is about the mentality of community. Everyone must work together to save the day. Survival is all that matters, and thus the film finds no issue in jumping through the lives of dozens of characters at will. Somehow they all feel real in spite of their limitations. As the impending tragedy occurs, there's a certain shock to watching those faces vanish, often in excellently directed and tense scenes set to Zimmer's profoundly rich score. As much as it's a war movie, Dunkirk is a horror movie as well where the threat can shoot through walls and there's not a single safe place for the film's entire 107 minute running time. It's a harrowing feat that's given incredible moments, such as the eventual rescue scene, where Zimmer's work has never been more emotionally satisfying. Nolan knows how to build stakes in a movie so well that his heady philosophical subtext of films like Inception and Interstellar are not missed too much. This is a film that rushes the senses and gives off the sense of war better than any other film since Saving Private Ryan.
It's also a film that shows Nolan's skill as a visual artist. Even in scenes of chaos, he knows how to shoot scope and perspective. In some scenes, the chaos is miles away, and seeing it as a mere speck is horrifying enough. Other times the film feels claustrophobic and benefits from the unpredictable nature of what follows. This is the type of film that warrants the IMAX treatment, feeling reminiscent of films like Lawrence of Arabia where the awe comes from being able to see the wide open spaces as soldiers run the injured to safety. There's an art on display in the film's quiet moments. Even if the enemy has gone minutes without attack, there's still that fear that something terrible is minutes away. Even in the fighter plane scenes, Nolan updates films like Dawn Patrol and 12 O'Clock High by turning the skyline into its own hypnotic, bending structure. Even as they fight among the clouds, the blue world around them looks foreign. It adds a wondrous texture to the film, and one that adds to the overall beauty.
By the end, it's a powerful film and one that will rush the sense so greatly that you'll need a minute to recover. What it lacks in personal character details, it makes up for in creating a cinematic experience. It is a film that elevates Nolan's talents by forcing him to use his tropes in new and exciting ways. In some ways, it's his most personal film, which can be seen in every detail. Even if one could argue that he's made better films, it doesn't seem likely that they were better directed. This is the product of someone who knows what they're doing and can manipulate the audience to feel every last emotion in existence. This is a film that demands big screen treatment, and one that should finally get Nolan into serious Oscar consideration. He has reinvented the war movie by reshaping time, music, and character development. There hasn't been a war movie like this in decades, so appreciate it on the big screen while you can.