Dunkirk is a bit of a paradox. It is a big, bombastic picture of epic proportions that also shows surprising restraint. It is notable, for example, that it only runs a little over 100 minutes long, including credits. There are long stretches in it without dialogue or even action, the film intent on capturing the deperation of the situation rather than building excitement. It’s a pretty grim picture that may suddenly just burst into hokey sentimentality. To put it simply: it is not normal. It is not all content with being just like every other big war movie ever produced. And this proves to be a pretty good thing.The strangeness begins with the perspective. The film splits its narrative into three intercut sections, each one covering a different span of time. On the beaches of Dunkirk, two soldiers (Fionn Whitehead and Damien Bonnard) spend a desperate week trying everything they can to stow away on one of the ships leaving for England. Out on the sea, a civilian (Mark Rylance) and two young men (Tom Glynn-Carney and Barry Keoghan) make the perilous day long crossing to Dunkirk on a pleasure yacht, as part of a civilian effort to rescue the soldiers. And up in the air, three spitfire pilots attempt to provide air support for one vital hour of rescue.In matching up these different time frames, the film is basically able to sustain an action climax throughout its entire runtime. Once it gets past some sloppy exposition, it just barrels into the fray, cutting between soldiers bracing for bombs for swimming for their lives and pilots in the sky taking on fire and civilians forced to deal with the trauma that the soldiers have faced. When part goes into a lull, it cuts away to something more immediate and vital. There’s clever structuring in here, the movie using expert editing to tie these stories together, even when the characters are geographical distant from each other.It just becomes pure, heart-rending spectacle. It is a film that cuts out everything that might detract from the overall effect. It barely even shows the enemy, the Germans basically an abstract force that occasionally sends bullets and bombs toward the subjects. There are long stretches without dialogue, the film content with capturing the movement and the desperation. This approach dictates practically everything that goes on in this movie. It’s willing to disorient its audience, placing them in the middle of chaotic, dangerous situations. It shoots from inside a sinking ship, or from the side of a spitfire in the middle of the dogfight. At every turn, the film just finds novel and oddly beautiful ways to convey the existential terror of the whole situation.This approach also plays into Nolan’s strengths as a filmmaker. He’s always been more of a mechanic than an artist, the best parts of his movies often showcasing an ability to solve technical problems, rather than any particular talent for conveying complex themes. In its simplicity, Dunkirk gives Nolan the platform for his most elegant work yet. In reducing the scope of the war while maintaining its scale, the film feels oddly personal, and moves well beyond the intellectual posturing of some of his other work. A cast of great actors makes every line count, but that isn’t what matters at all. What matters is that ships are sinking and people are drowning and there is an airplane in the sky that is proving to be a miracle.Dunkirk is a real experience. Once it gets going, it’s pretty much just one straight hour of unrelenting stress, the film determined to make the audience feel as much of the terror of these soldiers as possible. The subject itself is rather strange for a war movie, because it isn’t at all about trying to kill an enemy or take a position. This is a film about rescue, about preserving life in the face of overwhelming odds. To tell that story in this scale is remarkable, and it’s an experiencing worth seeking out.
DUNKIRK IS NOW SHOWING IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE.