Dunkirk is another of Christopher Nolan’s puzzle box movies. Taking what could have been a very straightforward war movie, he does things with the timeline to make it clearly his own. Even without the differing timelines, it still would not have been a particularly traditional war movie. Dunkirk is an intense, impossible to look away from movie that is unlike any I’ve ever seen.
Dunkirk is a war movie, chronicling the escape from the Nazis of the defeated allied army from the beach at Dunkirk. It does this without ever showing an enemy soldier, other than a few planes. They shoot from off-screen and drop bombs from mostly unseen planes. It is all about the the soldiers on the beach, the civilians coming over in their own boats to help evacuate and the pilots flying cover for them.
Each of those three segments is also somewhat oddly structured. For one, the characters are barely named. We get some names, but we learn almost nothing about the majority of the characters. We know almost nothing about the soldiers on the beach other than they are soldiers on the beach who want to get off the beach. We know nothing about the pilots other than that they are pilots. We do learn a fraction more about the civilians on the boat, but only a fraction. That is not to say it doesn’t create relatable characters, only that they are largely examined in the present rather than the past.
Then there is how it handles its three different timelines. Events on the beach take place over the course of a week, while events on the boat take place over the course of one day and events in the plane take place over the course of an hour. So things happen in the planes before we see their effects on the boat or the beach.
I’m not sure the structure, other than being interesting in and of itself, helps the telling of the story. The story being told is good enough to not need any embellishing. Each of the three storylines would be enough to support an entire movie in their own right. There is heroism to be found in each part.
That is where the movie truly succeeds. Each scene is tense and enthralling. Whether it is the soldiers trying to escape a sinking ship or the pilots in an intense dogfight, every scene has something to add. It is too the movie’s credit that each even though it never lets up it also never feels overwhelming. It manages to make the evacuation seem not like a victory, which it wasn’t, but an achievement.
Dunkirk is easily among the best movies I’ve seen this year. Nolan is a master craftsman and this movie shows it. And if I am being honest, when the movie nears its end with Churchill’s address to the nation I teared up a little bit. Nolan has long since proven himself a master, and Dunkirk is another feather in his cap.