I’ve been doubtful about this movie for quite some time now. I just wasn’t sure that even a director as talented as Nolan could bring anything new to the weary war genre after all these decades of war movies. Then people started saying that it might be his best movie and I found myself even more baffled. Well, it isn’t his best movie by a stretch, but it’s easily his best since The Dark Knight, nearly a decade old at this point. It’s also easily his most technically assured. The visuals in the flying sequences in particularly were just breathtaking; the way Nolan shot the vast expanses of sea & sky is just incredible and you can’t help but think of Nolan as having achieved a level of mastery that allows for filmmaking in a genuinely classical style. Much is made of Nolan’s “practical effects,” “no 3D,” “etc.” philosophy in order to elevate him as some sort of cinematic purist, but as clichéd as all that is, there’s simply no denying the power he wields over this classic style of filmmaking. Nolan really puts you as a viewer right there, front and center, at every moment of this film. It’s an incredibly intense movie for a lot of reasons. The propulsive, nearly overwhelming score (which I’m sure rubbed some people the wrong way) really worked for me in terms of just keeping me right on the edge of my seat; the sound design is loud and intense, but in service of immersion in the events and it isn’t distracting like the sound in Interstellar. Then there’s the film relatively taut running time. After the way Nolan’s films have just been getting longer and longer, it was refreshing to see him returning to a running time of well under two hours. I really liked the non-linear way of telling the story. Nolan has three different plot threads; one of them covers a week on the beach at Dunkirk, the second covers a day on a boat participating in the rescue mission and the final one covers an hour on board a fighter plane flying air cover. But Nolan cuts back and forth between these three plot threads as if they were all happening at the same time; he’s really exploiting the assumptions we make about film language and it works like a charm, adding an off-kilter, incredibly canny aspect to the movie. This enables him to not be bound by the strictures of chronology, time, place and a variety of other things as he builds the emotion of the film. I’ve seen a lot of criticisms revolving around the film being emotionally dry, but I found it to be exactly the opposite. It’s more emotionally effecting to me than Interstellar, a film that revolved entirely around the notion of emotion as power. The final montage is some of Nolan’s most stunning cinematic work; a plane glides over a beach for a period of seconds, but in those few seconds, another plot thread moves ahead hours and a third jumps ahead a number of days so that Nolan can effectively climax all three plot threads at the exact same moment and create a real collision of thematic resonance there. Those last few minutes of the film deal with one of the film’s most daring assertions, namely that there are powerful redemptive moments and lessons to be found in defeat that might never be found or understood in victory. It’s incredibly moving and the flood of music and images really got to me and I was honestly moved to tears by the way all those stories came together at the last moment, bound up with Churchill’s famous speech. One could see this as jingoistic, but I think Nolan’s too smart for that; it’s not a story of rousing victory, but instead a story about finding victory in the midst of punishing defeat and that’s a message that will always resonate, whether you’re talking about a nation finding strength in a dark hour or a filmmaker coming off a string of misfires setting the screen itself on fire with a masterpiece for the ages. This movie, happily, details both in a manner both technically breathtaking and deeply emotional. Bravo. 4 stars.
tl;dr – incredibly intense film is creatively structured, powerfully moving, beautifully redemptive and an undeniable technical achievement; Nolan’s back with another masterpiece. 4 stars.