Dunkirk is many things, but I don’t think you could call it entertainment. And yet it comes from Christopher Nolan, the director whose DNA is all over the modern-day popcorn blockbuster. Nolan has raided his stockpile of cinematic tricks and techniques to make a bravura, you-are-there document of the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation, in which a makeshift fleet pulled more than 300,000 British soldiers off a beach on the northern tip of France as German forces had them virtually surrounded. The result is almost unbearably intense—if you’re prone to cinematic trauma, or if you suffer from actual PTSD, Dunkirk might be more than you’re able to take.
For the rest of us, Dunkirk is imperative viewing—not simply because it offers a vital history lesson, but because it reminds us how moving images and recorded sound, when orchestrated under the baton of a maestro, can work as a kind of teleportation. Make no mistake: This is a high-functioning demonstration of the craft of artifice. Every frame of Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema’s IMAX and 70mm photography is color-saturated just right for a postcard-like effect, and the sound design—filled with ticking clocks, pounding heartbeats, and seismic booms—is almost sadistically manipulative. But the result is pure vérité: You will shiver at the icy chill of the English Channel and cower under the deafening fire of German planes.
At well under two hours, it’s among the shortest films Nolan has ever made, yet it might be the most grueling experience you have at the movies this year.
It may be worth boning up on a little history ahead of time, especially for younger Americans who might not know much about the Dunkirk evacuation or the battle that preceded it. Nolan’s film provides zero backstory or context—we’re thrust into the middle of the action from the get-go, with no expository dialogue to orient us. (In fact, there’s little in the way of dialogue at all.) And I think I should spoil one thing in order to make the movie easier to understand: Nolan’s story unfolds in three different, overlapping timelines. They’re labeled at the front of the picture, but it still took me a while to get my bearings. The first, titled “the Mole,” takes place over a week; the second, “the Sea,” occurs over a day; and the third, “the Air,” within a single hour.
Each panel of Nolan’s triptych has its central protagonists, but the characters—played by a remarkable cast including Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, and a quite good Harry Styles—are drawn in only the smallest, most essential strokes. “The Mole” section dominates the action, following a private (Fionn Whitehead) through a series of failed attempts to get off the beach. “The Air,” with Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden as Royal Air Force pilots, offers the film’s most exhilarating sequences of dazzling aerial combat. But the heart of the movie is in “the Sea,” in which Mark Rylance’s non-soldier navigates his pleasure boat across the Channel in order to bring back British soldiers.
Because of its faithfulness to historical fact, some may complain that Dunkirk isn’t dramatically satisfying, at least in a traditional sense. At well under two hours, it’s among the shortest films Nolan has ever made, yet it might be the most grueling experience you have at the movies this year. The deliberately lean story loses its legibility at times; certain sequences don’t quite make sense, while others never find the towline of narrative to pull viewers out of the confusion of events. And yet even these shortcomings feel right—Dunkirk reminds us of the experiential power of film. At its most effective, a movie can allow us to live the lives of others, even if momentarily. And Nolan has given us something terrible and wonderful to live through.