Christopher Nolan is a master filmmaker. That much can’t really be disputed any more. Since coming into the public eye with the groundbreaking Memento in 2000 the British writer, director, and producer has proven himself a creator of innovative films that are consistently both highly entertaining and intellectually stimulating. But it is with Dunkirk that Nolan has unveiled his most unconventional, if not necessarily his best, film.
Depicting the evacuation of British forces from the titular French location as the latter country fell to Nazi control, Dunkirk differentiates itself from other war movies, particularly its many siblings in the World War II subgenre, by focusing solely on survival, relatively uninterested in the moral difficulties of war time. To Nolan anyone around Dunkirk those fateful few days, both the soldiers and the civilian sailors who aided in the evacuation, were heroes, despite any faults they may have, which to be fair, Nolan doesn’t entirely ignore (English bias against the French is acknowledged a decent amount). Therefore, Nolan sets out to depict just how extreme the conditions these men and boys endured were, calling on all his considerable filmmaking skill to do so. Dunkirk is a rollercoaster of a film, with constantly climactic tension that does not let up for the entirety of its (admittedly short) runtime. Nolan abandons traditional ideas of narrative to build a film that is completely experiential. The characters’ personalities and backstories play second fiddle to the depiction of the physical challenges and fear they experience. Nolan’s biggest concern, many might say his only concern, here is to immerse the viewer in the combative chaos he depicts. Nolan has acquired a reputation for being a bit of a cold filmmaker and while the extent to which this is true is often exaggerated emotional impact certainly isn’t necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of his filmography. With the exception of his Batman trilogy the main draw to a Nolan movie is usually something other than memorable character work, examples being enthralling mysteries (such as in The Prestige) or technical filmmaking innovation (found in Inception and Memento). It would be understandable to expect Nolan to focus more on character in a film about the tragedy of war but as he often does Nolan subverts expectations, playing fast and loose with emotional arcs in order to devote himself to making the viewer feel as if they really are on that beach, on those boats, or in those planes. Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance are the only actors given really emotionally challenging material though all do their jobs at the least adequately, with Tom Hardy bringing a welcome dose of action movie cool to his role as a fighter pilot.
In addition to the focus on intensity over traditional narrative arcs, the other factor making Dunkirk feel fresh among its many war movie peers is its unique narrative structure. Often known to employ multiple intersecting time frames, Nolan divides Dunkirk into three distinct, though still related, chapters. One, referred to as “The Mole” depicts the week long struggle of the soldiers slowly being evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk. Another, “The Sea”, focuses on Rylance’s character and two others, the owner and two hands of one of the civilian boats called in to aid in the evacuation, on their day long journey to those same beaches. Finally “The Air” follows Hardy’s character and his partners as they provide air support for the final hour of the sea mission. Thanks to masterful editing and some carefully constructed surprises the intersections between the three timelines provide a genuine cinematic thrill.
While it certainly has its flaws (chief among them an occasional lack of clarity about where different groups are in relation to each other), Dunkirk is still something of a marvel. An artistic, experimental film with blockbuster aesthetics that deserves more than a few Academy Award nominations, especially for cinematography and editing, it is more than anything a tribute to the real heroes of the battle it depicts that proves both the skill and integrity of its director. Nolan’s efforts are selfless here both in terms of how he takes risks and knows when not to, in order to make the most effective, respectful film possible. A Best Director nomination is more than deserved.