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Christopher Nolan is not your average, typical filmmaker. In fact, he’s one of the best we’ve ever had, perhaps the closest right now to Stanley Kubrick in terms of ambition, breadth of interests, and pull with studios and talent who can provide the resources necessary to achieve said ambitions. So it should be no surprise that Dunkirk is not your average, typical war film. In fact, it’s not even your typical Christopher Nolan film.

Dunkirk’s plot is minimal. All you need to know is laid out in the opening text: 400,000 British soldiers are trying to get the hell out of Dunkirk, France before the Germans overrun them. Though home is only 26 miles away, it’s across the Channel, and the beach of Dunkirk is shallow and huge boats must dock at the pier, set on a breakwater known as The Mole. It’s a slow process, and it’s estimated only about 40,000 troops will be succesfully evacuated before the Nazis arrive, who are being held back only by the rear guard comprised mostly of Allied French/Belgian troops. Meanwhile, German Messerschmitts can pick apart troops on the beach, while bombers decimate the boats trying to pick up the soldiers. Everything’s terribly dangerous.

What Dunkirk might seem to lack in traditional, straightforward plot is more than made up for in structure and style. It interweaves three tales: a few desperate soldiers on the beach, whose story unfolds over the course of a week; a boat of civilians who volunteer their smaller seacraft to pick up the soldiers, whose journey takes about a day over choppy waters with enemy planes about; and finally, a couple of Spitfires in the sky providing cover and air support, whose sorties take about an hour. The non-linearity means that Cillian Murphy can appear in two of the stories, while Tom Hardy makes an appearance in all three.

What the intercutting does beautifully is keep the entire film stressful. It’s one long taut piano wire of tension, skipping from near-death encounter to near-death encounter. There’s nary a moment to catch your breath; the soldiers know better than anyone how illusory safety is in these circumstances. One character makes a point of never being in an enclosed space, for example. Even if it means shivering in the cold.

Nolan’s command of story and craft means he’s perfectly comfortable having long swathes of running time go without dialogue; all you need are the shell-shocked/desperate/haunted/determined expressions of his actors. There is an understanding between strangers wearing the same uniform who figure out that if they hustle a stretcher with a wounded casualty aboard the ship, they might be able to finagle for themselves a spot on the way home. Dogfighting pilots have their own understanding too, playing a dangerous chess game in the sky, weaving and bobbing in and out of one another’s line of sight, and more importantly, crosshairs.

Indeed, it’s striking that for a war movie, you don’t actually see the enemy in this film. You see a plane, the wake of a torpedo, you get fired upon as you walk in an abandoned town and on the beach, but we never actually see enemy troops. Their presence is felt rather than seen.

One-third of the movie isn’t even about soldiers but civilians, led by Mark Rylance. He and his son take their yacht from home and head for Dunkirk, even if the waters they head into have U-boats and mines, and the skies above have German planes. Tom Hardy’s pilot gets to be the only out-and-out hero type in the film, taking down enemy planes and bombers though outnumbered, doing what little he can to protect the masses of troops (a fitting role, as Hardy’s own grandfather was at Dunkirk).

Hans Zimmer’s score is near-constant throughout the film’s tense succession of setpieces, though it ebbs and flows like the tide that proves so treacherous. It even incorporates the ticking of Christopher Nolan’s own wristwatch, which Zimmer recorded. The sound design is excellent as well, and will likely win the film an Oscar. The sound of Spitfires flying overhead, being shot at in a hollow steel hull, the wailing drone of a divebombing Messerschmitt all ratchet the tension and add to the realism. It was also no small matter that they were able to shoot at the actual beach of Dunkirk during the same time of the year, even celebrating its anniversary while shooting. Nolan eschewed CGI as much as possible and it really helps, particularly in dogfighting scenes where they had to come up with new ways of getting IMAX cameras in cockpits. Some of the boats shown in the film were even the very same boats that came to assist in the war effort almost eighty years ago.

It might be a peculiar slice of the war to cover: it’s not exaclty rife with opportunities for traditional war heroics. In fact, the troops on the beach are basically desperate to get away, and struggle with the limits of what they are willing to do to survive, even if it means getting a leg up on fellow soldiers. But with the volunteer citizen seamen and the pilots, Dunkirk shows how this was a moment whene people came together in a time of great need. There’s a beautiful sequence near the end that has likely never been seen before, a moment of grace that comes as a surprise in its context, and it’s moments like these that earn Dunkirk its place among the best war films ever made.

Photos from Warner Bros. Pictures

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