As the story opens, we see a pack of fresh-faced soldiers walking carelessly through a quaint town paved with cobblestone. It looks more like a tourist trap than a war zone, but sure enough, fire rings out and a number of the young men fall. Only one soldier escapes death, and with nothing to thank but his own good luck.
Still in shock, he stumbles through an alley or two, past someone’s deserted backyard, until the environment opens up into a sprawling beach littered with soldiers, stretching out farther than the eye can see. Not five minutes after rejoining his battalion, the eerie quiet is broken by a distant whine—it’s a German bomber. You can’t fire back and you can’t run; all you can do is fall on your stomach, put your hands on the back of your head and hope it’s not you. Once again, the kid is lucky.
So begins “Dunkirk,” the latest film from writer/director, Christopher Nolan. In the early stages of World War II, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops are stranded on a French beach, surrounded by a ravenous enemy and separated from home by nothing but a narrow section of the English Channel. Evacuating them all is deemed too risky—after all, ships are needed for the battles yet to come. Things become so dire that the British government contacts private citizens to aid in the evacuation. Winston Churchill would later refer to the entire predicament as a “colossal military disaster.”
This is a war film like no other, as Nolan refuses to sensationalize. He shows an incredible amount of restraint by not reaching for the quick reaction, but letting moments breathe. In doing so, the camera is able to extract the tension from every silence, the uncertainty from every face and the despondent beauty of the overcast skies above the grey beach. These are visual blessings that would otherwise go unnoticed and which make this one of the most visually layered movies I’ve ever seen.
Nolan distills the mythic event of Dunkirk into micro stories, which are separated by land, sea and air. On land, we follow that lucky kid, who dejectedly stumbles from one mess to another, with little on his mind but living to see the next mess. I’ll leave the other two for you to discover, but one is particularly meaningful and involves a young man who makes a split-second decision based on nothing but, “I’d rather be anywhere but here.” With these characters, Nolan doesn’t take the easy out by over-sentimentalizing them as saints with perfect wives and perfect children waiting at home. In fact, we’re told very little about these people, other than where they are at the moment, and that’s all that matters, because through their struggle, we naturally sympathize.
Alone, these micro stories feel incomplete, but together, they are Dunkirk. By breaking the event down into these narrative fragments, Nolan is able to encompass the magnitude of the situation without exposition or scenes of beer-bellied politicians philosophizing in boardrooms. And he does this with very little dialogue, because when you’re sitting on a cold beach in broad daylight, waiting to be rescued or picked off, what is there to say?
At the risk of sounding pretentious, “Dunkirk” is what the movies were made for. It’s an immersive experience that doesn’t need 3-D glasses to feel three-dimensional—parlor tricks could never capture its scope and density. It’s remarkably studious for a war film—calm and confident in its subject—save for Hans Zimmer’s relentless score, which gives voice to the ticking clock on all our lives. If you go see one movie this year, make it “Dunkirk.”