The first feature film to be shot almost entirely in the outsized Imax format, Dunkirk offers impressive views of torpedoed destroyers sinking into the choppy sea, snaking lines of stranded soldiers on the wide beach and battling Spitfires framed by the large sky. Yet it is also the smallest details in Christopher Nolan's new war epic that can grab you by the throat: A close-up of a brass bolt on a civilian pleasure craft creates one of the tensest moments in the film as a young sailor considers where exactly danger may lie.
To tell the story of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk between May 27 and June 4, 1940, Nolan has employed a sophisticated three-part structure that might seem more at home in a discursive novel than in a film script that prefers terrifying action over heroic talk. The writer and director, who used a highly unusual chronology in his breakthrough 2000 feature Memento before he produced the big-budget Dark Knight trilogy, announces his plan right at the top: According to titles, the film covers one week on "the mole" or jetty at Dunkirk, one day at sea in one of the civilian boats that sailed to the rescue of the troops, and one hour in the air over the English Channel during a dogfight with the Germans.
Still, despite those pointers, that narrative sequence may trip up many a viewer. I found events in the air particularly hard to follow, with their characters hidden behind flying goggles and their real-time immediacy so different from the more conventional progression of the stories at sea and on land.
But such is the fog of war. What Nolan does most decisively in this film is take you there, giving viewers a visceral sense of the danger and desperation in an unrelentingly tense hour and 45 minutes in which unspoken dread seems able to give way only to repeated disaster.
The action begins on the eerily quiet streets of Dunkirk with a scene where, if you see the film on an Imax screen, you almost feel as though you were walking the pavement yourself. In this town now surrounded by the enemy, a young British solider with a knack for survival (Fionn Whitehead) manages to escape German fire, scramble over French sandbags and make it down to the beach. There he joins up with another lad (Aneurin Barnard) and the pair soon pretend to be stretcher-bearers so they can hop the queue on the mole and get on a ship that is loading the wounded, supervised by a grim naval commander (Kenneth Branagh) anticipating a massacre.
The queue-jumping plan fails, as do several other of the two soldiers' attempts to get back across the Channel, but it is their stubborn self-preservation rather than any derring-do that is noteworthy here. If Nolan's script raises his story far above the melodramatic heroics of most war movies, it is because he refuses to sentimentalize or speechify. With admirably understated naturalism, his powerful male ensemble is often left to suffer in silence or cast a few terse lines to the wind.
Nonetheless, the evacuation of Dunkirk was a highly dramatic event, its miracle that a fleet of civilian craft managed to help rescue more than 300,000 men by ferrying them from the shallow port out to larger naval vessels or directly back to England. The real hero in the film – and the central performance – is the figure of Mr. Dawson, the old man with a boat played with unfailing solidity and much subtlety by Mark Rylance.
After the navy begins commandeering civilian boats, he insists on sailing across the Channel himself, with his son and another youth (Tom Glynn-Carney and Barry Keoghan). They run into problems when they pick up a shipwrecked and shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) who refuses to believe he's going back to Dunkirk. He's unpredictable enough that the younger Dawson contemplates locking him in the cabin, hence that shot of the brass bolt. For all that Mr. Dawson's phlegmatic courage personifies the spirit that eventually won the war, what unfolds on the little boat is deeply ironic.
Meanwhile, in the air above their heads, two British pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) are frantically trying to gun down German planes before they strafe the ships – or the soldiers on the beach. If their dogfight harks back to many an old war movie – there are only so many times you can thrill to the sight of the Luftwaffe going down in flames – their presence dramatically reinforces the exposure of the men on the beach. The German pilots they are fighting are never shown: Nolan concentrates exclusively on the perspective of the trapped Allies in a film that, as it transports viewers back to that desperate week in 1940, would seem to capture the actual experience of war in a way few others have done before.
Technically awe-inspiring, narratively inventive and thematically complex, Dunkirk reinvigorates its genre with a war movie that is both harrowing and smart.