Christopher Nolan has long been exactingly examining the marriage of the epic and the intimate. His Dark Knight trilogy was about the fate of a major metropolis and the handful of individuals who fought to shape its future on the ground. Inception was a globe-trotting adventure with cleverly expanded set pieces that were entirely contained within the minds of a few. Interstellar was a journey beyond space and time about a man travelling to the edges of the universe to save humankind only to fail his daughter back home. Nolan is perpetually intrigued by the status and purpose and power of the tiny individual who is dwarfed by life’s immense challenges and still makes a difference anyway.
Knowing Nolan’s past efforts in this regard only makes his latest movie, an astonishingly immersive account of the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation that saw hundreds of thousands of British soldiers rescued from a German-surrounded beach in France, all the more fascinating because it feels like Nolan laid bare. While no blockbuster filmmaker can leap over a plot hole by manner of sheer force quite like Nolan, there isn’t even enough space here for a plot hole to exist. There’s barely room for any plot at all, other than survive survive SURVIVE!
It’s a formal experiment performed on the grand scale of a colossal action thriller, with a clear goal from the opening seconds until the final few minutes to generate terrifyingly taut tension as loudly and relentlessly as has ever been attempted within the confines of a flashy, splashy blockbuster release. Nolan drops us into the middle of the conflict from the opening shot and then lets us tour the war experience from three geographical perspectives: land, sea, and air.
We stand with the trapped soldiers on the beach who are left to await their fate, chug across the English Channel in a civilian boat, and soar across the sky with Air Force pilots trying to make their limited fuel last all the way to the besieged beach that is littered with thousands of soldiers.
The structure recalls another major theme found in Nolan's work: time. Beyond the ticking clock scenarios the filmmaker loves to place his heroes in, time is often a creative construct in Nolan adventures, from the nested dream levels that exponentially elongate the hours in Inception to the decades lost by gravitational differences on wormhole-accessed planets in Interstellar. But here he's not playing with fantasy, instead looking for a way to employ time to match his meatily tangible aesthetic with the recreation of an actual historical event.
He lays out his concept simply yet tantalizingly, quickly establishing how time differs from each spatial perspective. For the soldiers on the beach, it's one week; for the civilians captaining their boats into battle to rescue whoever they can, the trip requires a day; for the pilots taking out any planes that might pose a threat to the pinned-down men on the beach, the action is compressed into just one hour, as much fuel as their tanks could hold back then.
Nolan and regular collaborator Lee Smith, who has edited every Nolan movie since 2005’s Batman Begins, when the blockbuster portion of Nolan’s filmography began, cut crisply and rapidly between the three timelines in a manner that reinforces the compelling conceit. They spend more time with scenes on the beach than they do with scenes on the boat than they do with the planes overhead, creating an inherently believable and deeply felt sense of how time is passing overall without ever resorting to blatant reminders of where we are in the hour, day, or week.
This approach also makes sense from a technical perspective, since the more complicated the filming environment becomes, the less footage is required, allowing the most spectacular moments to truly stand out in their uniqueness. When it comes to the flying portion of the narrative, Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema pull out all the stops in breathtaking fashion.
The majesty and magnificence of the aerial photography is difficult, if not nigh impossible, to put into words. It's a cinematic landmark, a mind-melting meld of technical and creative talent expanding the scope of the screen, footage so realistically rendered that it feels like we're going to trip headlong from our seats and tumble inside Nolan's dizzying world where Spitfires own the sky and the horizon is rarely horizontal.
Dunkirk is the epitome of Nolan's aims, a massive cinematic spectacle meant to touch the audience with its bold thematic reach and a technically audacious approach to experiential storytelling. His plots have always required a considerable suspension of disbelief, which he handles deftly, but there's something especially invigorating about Nolan operating freed of plot constraints.
His commitment to defending the artistic integrity of the big screen experience has never been more clearly defined than it is here, where he affixes IMAX camera rigs to the wings of planes and creates an unbelievably harrowing depiction of a boat being destroyed by a torpedo as viewed from the perspective of the soldiers trapped inside the suddenly sinking hunk of metal.
Nolan expertly locates the narrative nexus where the big picture of battle and the individual stories of survival intersect. This is a deeply human tale, sweeping in its scope, yet focused on the faces in the crowd. The filmmaker closely examines the thin line between life and death in the hellish heat of combat and uses the theatre’s booming sound system to wall us in so that our ability to relate to the characters onscreen isn’t tied to any sentimental backstory, but rather to the immediate situation these people are fighting through for the entire duration of the picture.
Aided by Hans Zimmer’s increasingly stress-inducing score, Nolan cranks up the tension to unbearable levels for a finale that combines all three timelines and should leave everyone in the audience reeling, awed by the inspiring, inspired efforts that made this story possible more than three-quarters of a century ago and this movie a reality an entire lifetime later.