Since the early days of film, time has been manipulated, bent, and distorted all to alter the way we experience cinema. Directors like Andrei Tarkovsky and Terrence Malick made it their point to depict time in new ways. So too has Christopher Nolan, whose Inception and Interstellar are brilliant examples of how he has already played around with how time is represented on screen.
But his latest, Dunkirk, takes it to a revolutionary new level. Telling three stories that each take different courses of time, it is a singular cinematic experience as you watch these threads intertwine through a myriad of simple, courageous heroes, breathtaking cinematography, and a stirring score.
In many ways, Dunkirk really is one of the most tremendous war movies—perhaps the best since Saving Private Ryan. It isn’t a bloody film, but it sure is an intense one. From the opening moments, Hans Zimmer’s brilliant, ubiquitously-ticking score starts to pulse through your ears. That tick slowly eats away at you until you’re on the verge of a breakdown. Then the bullets erupt and shatter your ears. This might not be what war looks like, but it sure sounds like hell.
The sounds of the film far outweigh any dialogue, and the gorgeous cinematography dwarfs pretty much everything else. It’s breathtaking more often than not; even in the grimmest moments, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema can find great beauty. His flying sequences alone deserve an award. Seldom has war ever been this magnificent.
Nolan keeps the talking to a minimum in order to focus on the story: survival. Aside from what is needed to establish the situation, there really aren’t many big heroic speeches or rallying cries. We grow an emotional attachment to these characters through simple empathy, and that’s an astounding achievement. The performers elevate this sense of connectedness, even if they say little. It might trip people up going in, especially if you’re expecting the wordiness of some other Nolan films, but it really is about the moment—not the specific people.
Dunkirk is a triptych of Air, Water, and Land. This is where the ingenious of the film comes in. The events that take place in the air, which revolve around Tom Hardy as a pilot, occur over the course of an hour; Mark Rylance sailing his boat from England takes the course of a day; and the events on the beaches with Harry Styles and Fionn Whitehead, span an entire week. This means we get to see several events from multiple points of view, and there are moments where this all comes together in such a powerful way that you can’t help but edge forward in your seat to await the inevitable collision course of all three stories.
If there’s one thing Dunkirk doesn’t do well, it’s explain just why the events of the film take place and why they were so crucial. Many of us here in America consider Pearl Harbor and D-Day as the most important events in the war, but over in England, the events at Dunkirk are where their patriotism and emotions lie. This creates some confusion, especially for those entirely uncertain about what is going on as Nolan thrusts you into the action without warning.
Over two decades, Nolan has dazzled us each time he’s made a movie. With every passing masterwork, I wonder if he’s reached his peak. I said that after Dark Knight, after Inception, after Interstellar, and now I must wonder it after Dunkirk. It is a superb achievement not only for storytelling, but the war genre as a whole.