DUNKIRK Review: Christopher Nolan’s Ticking Clock Masterpiece

Nolan's WWII film may be the very best of his already distinguished career.

The Mole. The Sea. The Air.

One Week. One Day. One Hour.

Like Richard Linklater, the passage of time has been a defining element of Christopher’s Nolan’s filmography. His breakout feature, Memento (’00), was a mystery played in reverse, as we’re stuck with an amnesiac (Guy Pearce) attempting to piece together his wife’s murder, one lost memory after another. Inception (’10) stacked levels of dreams into a veritable layer cake of consciousness, as seconds become minutes become days become weeks become months and so on and so forth. It’s all relative; a person’s imaginings slowing their existence just as easily as they allow them to do battle in a Zero-G rendition of a lost James Bond sequel. Interstellar (’14) saw one astronaut (Matthew McConaughey) take a journey that dilates the passage of years, separating him from his children for over two decades, the exploration of space’s outer reaches carrying the price tag of relationships with his kin. Even Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (’05 – ’12) is focused on a superhero’s maturation through an era of ever-shifting terrorism, the consequences of Bruce Wayne’s actions rippling through the history of Gotham City.

Dunkirk is both the natural extension and technical perfection of the writer/director’s obsession with how stretches of hours, days, and weeks can intertwine and feel indistinguishable from one another. A triptych of narrative strands – each centered around the British Expeditionary Force’s ‘40 evacuation from France during the early days of World War II – the segments converge while respectively taking place during different measurements of time. These periods are both expanded and condensed, as we’re stuck on the beach with doomed soldiers for a week, in a pleasure yacht with civilians dispatched to save them for a day, and gliding through the air with fighter pilots aiming to keep both safe by shooting down the incoming enemy for an hour. While ostensibly old fashioned in design (the period detail recalling Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One [‘80]), Nolan’s film is distinctly modern in execution; an experimental exercise in ticking clock suspense masquerading as a traditional rah rah war epic. It’s the movie every other work in Nolan’s body has been building toward, showcasing a master filmmaker at the peak of his powers. To wit, this may be the stuffy auteur’s to date masterpiece, and we’re lucky the forty-six-year-old filmmaker has many, many years of motion pictures ahead of him.

Over the years, many have compared Christopher Nolan to Stanley Kubrick, and that evaluation has possibly never felt more apt. Aside from his trademark austerity, Nolan (who wrote the movie without his brother Jonathan – a rarity in his oeuvre) seems unconcerned with any semblance of backstory for the soldiers involved in this harrowing ordeal. Were it not for a late reveal regarding the private captain (Mark Rylance) who journeys out with his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and the boy’s woe begotten friend (Barry Keoghan) to bring some of their lads back to England via his personal vessel, Dunkirk would fly dangerously close to the face of Kubrick’s oblique Vietnam diptych, Full Metal Jacket (’87). It’s a war movie wholly unconcerned with backstory, throwing you into the immersive otherness of combat. Much how the second half of Jacket plays like a young man’s half-remembered reverie of ‘Nam, Nolan’s Interstellar cinematographer Hoyte von Hoytema (Let the Right One In) bathes whole scenes in fantastical blues and hazy greys. When the bombs begin to drop, we’re snapped right back to reality, the sand getting caught in our hair as we taste the sea’s salt from seismic splashes that rock our escape boats. These are dreams of death, threatening to alter us forever as weapons discharge, their blasts mangling bodies and scarring psyches.

Those purchasing a ticket to Dunkirk expecting a straight-ahead war film such as Saving Private Ryan (’98) are going to be sorely disappointed. In fact, Nolan dispenses with the crowd-pleasing theatrics entirely, adopting a “death from above” approach to the enemy a la Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (’05). Just as that movie featured marauding invaders we never really get to know beyond their never-ending desire to rain death down upon our heroes, Nolan places us in the shoes of a fresh-faced foot soldier (Fionn Whitehead) in the very first scene, constantly searching his surroundings for signs of Kraut killers. But we never see the Germans.

Propaganda pamphlets screaming “We surround you!” drift down from the sky. Suddenly, shots ring out, echoing through the corridors and mowing down the teenager’s comrades as he scampers away and barely makes it to shore with his life intact. Rejoining lines of troops anxiously awaiting any passage to a motherland they can literally see from this sandy Hellscape, he spots a fellow Brit (Aneurin Barnard) and the two boys silently concur that their only hope for escape is to gain access to a hospital ship that’s about to set sail for England. Only once that transport embarks, the unseen forces of destruction rise out of the ocean’s blackness, slamming two torpedoes into the side of this vessel. War is apocalyptic chaos for all involved, and often it seems as if we’re merely counting down to the inevitable with these terrified young men.

In the air, birds of prey carry out similar anonymous attacks, as even the heavens are not safe from the Axis’ armies. These segments find Nolan transforming the German heavies into an existential burden, as a pilot (Tom Hardy – acting behind an oxygen mask with the eyes of a poet) is forced to both engage in dogfights and watch his fellow volunteer aviators get shot down into the green sea below. “The Air” is where the 65mm IMAX format von Hoytema shot the majority of the film with is put on dizzying display. While the muted beaches of “The Mole” seem to stretch out into infinity, and “The Sea” becomes an engulfing monstrosity, these blue skies hide death in plain sight. Sometimes, von Hoytema even takes a God’s Eye perspective to viewing the earth below, as if allowing the audience to float and observe as His creatures inflict untidy fates upon one another that we are too indifferent to interfere with. It’s a mix of dizzying spectacle and spacious contemplation that never slows the precise 106-minute runtime Dunkirk touts with ruthless pride. 

However, the large format isn’t simply used to generate majestic visual splendor, as its implementation often recalls the intimacy of the intense interrogations in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (’12). We’re up close and personal for conversations between officers (played by English superstars like Kenneth Branagh), their instantly recognizable mugs filling screens several stories high. Or we’re down below deck in the dank confines of a rescue ship with the soldiers, as they try and determine if the crew who plucked them out of the water salutes a Nazi flag. Nolan and von Hoytema understand that shooting in 65mm isn’t all about creating awe inspiring action set pieces (though they certainly show quite the knack for those as well), but also allowing us to examine the weariness this battle has left on each of it participants’ faces. At one point, Rylance’s privateer comments that war “changes you forever”, but Nolan would rather show us these alterations in cracked skin and tired eyes, mirroring the disastrous footprint combat leaves on the globe’s terrain.

Hans Zimmer’s sonic pomposity is a trademark of Nolan’s pictures, and Dunkirk is no different. There’s a metronomic quality to the buzzing strings and clicking percussion, as if we’re listening to the seconds tick away on these soldiers’ lives. If not for the playful day-to-night editing of Lee Smith (who has cut every one of Nolan’s movies since Batman Begins) the soundtrack Zimmer provides would feel downright anachronistic when juxtaposed against the period trappings. But this is another magic trick Dunkirk pulls off – extolling the artistic virtues of modernity while owning a po-faced stoicism that would make the England Morrissey often sings about proud. Dunkirk sports the values of an antiquated war film, where the survival of our mates is of primary concern. It’s not about defeating an enemy, but ensuring the soldiers live to fight another day; self-sacrifice offered up in service of preserving one’s own countrymen, presented with a thumping, wailing OST that will mimic Brian Eno during moments of triumph.

Nolan’s film isn’t the first to present this nail biting flee from fascist powers, as Leslie Norman’s similarly eponymous war picture put Richard Attenborough and John Mills to the test in ’58. But like Private Ryan owned Normandy, Nolan’s Dunkirk is the definitive filmic take on this crucial moment in British military history. It’s an extraordinary cinematic accomplishment, never going for the cheap emotional stinger and instead relying on small details, trusting the viewer to connect with its near elemental usage of visual storytelling. It’s a movie about the loss of life that doesn’t linger on death, letting you feel the imminent danger and understand that if this army doesn’t return to its home, then there may not be a home at all anymore. The battle at Dunkirk was ultimately a failure for the British, but Nolan’s Dunkirk is about how we deal with such defeats. Do we allow them to deflate our spirits? Or do we instead rejoice in the fact that we are still alive, and that we lent a hand to those around us in order to ensure they survived as well? Nolan’s answer seems to lean toward the latter – celebrating the notion that living to fight another day and seeing the smiling faces of those who love you are victories greater than any noble demise.