Christopher Nolan’s ensemble drama Dunkirk depicts the historic events of May 1940, when more than 300,000 Allied troops were trapped in that titular French harbor town. Behind them the German army, before them the English Channel, and above them Germany bombers — and somewhere, a plan to slowly evacuate the men from the woefully exposed beach in small boats.
The harrowing and fraught mission is told in three threads: “The Mole,” which covers a week’s time on the beach, where besieged young men scramble to find outward passage; “The Sea,” the events of a day on board a personal craft sailing from England to provide rescue; and “The Air,” in which British Spitfires battle with German Luftwaffe over the course of an hour. Nolan cuts between them, and the stories do intersect, but the overall effect is intentionally disorienting. No matter when and where you are — and Nolan puts viewers right in it — you are under attack and fighting for survival. In his films, Nolan likes to bend time, but there’s also a wartime logic where a terrifying hour can feel like a week.
Nolan shot in 70 mm, and you should spring for the IMAX ticket to get the wall-to-wallness of the action. The experience also includes effective sound design, from the sudden crack of bullets and the ominous creaking of boats to charged silence of exhausted men. Overall, the film is more experiential than plot-driven, unfolding in vignettes. Most are immersive action, while a few are moments of quiet horror (“The tide is turning now.” “How can you tell?” “The bodies come back.”)
Dunkirk employs some recognizable actors — Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh — but no real protagonists; newcomers Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles portray the young everyman soldiers. The star is the collective nature of sturdy Britons rallying to the cause, and the minute-to-minute experience of war itself. Here, the battle is appropriately tense, horrific and tragic, not without beauty — whether in the grateful gasp of a man saved from drowning, or Nolan’s gorgeous shot of a miles-long beach at dawn on which flanks of desperate men are lined up.