If Alfred Hitchcock were alive and still making films, Dunkirk is a movie he might have made, even if in his lifetime he didn’t tackle what turns out to be a surprisingly stirring tale of pure survival in war. The telling of the Dunkirk evacuation of eventually about 300,000 soldiers in the spring of 1940 has provided a challenge met with great success for writer-director Christopher Nolan. It retains the scale of some of his larger films such as the Dark Knight series, Inception and Interstellar, blended with a more intimate and structurally fascinating project like his earlier works Memento and Following. 

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As I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), Dunkirk isn’t a World War II film in the classic sense but more like a thriller centered on the nail-biting rescue attempt of some 400,000 British soldiers stuck like sitting ducks on the beaches of the French town where these brave men end up after trying to help French, Belgian and Canadian troops stave off the aggressive invading forces of Germany, about 18 months before America was attacked at Pearl Harbor. But as Nolan tells it, this is no ordinary story of courage in the face of heavy adversity in war, but instead a look at disparate participants all brought together with a simple goal: to bring these men home.

Anyone who ever saw Memento knows Nolan is a fan of playing with time and structure, incorporating a pulsating suspense factor even without spelling anything out for the audience. Again, like a true master of cinema, he lets it all come together in sometimes surprising but enormously effective and even emotional ways. With sparse dialogue and an emphasis on three separate angles on the Dunkirk operation, Nolan creates three smaller elements that lead to a much bigger picture.

In a compact 105 minutes, he takes what was in reality a nine-day effort and brings it all into focus, even without dwelling on a lot of character exposition or development. This is not a typical war picture in which we get much backstory of the men fighting it. We see them in action during a crisis where the goal isn’t to ultimately show off a victory. Here the endgame is just to get these guys off this beach and take them 26 miles across the English Channel back home, a complex task. This is a movie that, in its quiet way, is about beginnings, a necessary operation just to live to fight another day, but Nolan and his expert production team have made it all riveting to watch and experience. Told from different perspectives on land, sea, and air, we barely even know the names of the key characters. On land trying to escape the murderous gunfire and bombs of the Germans (not one of whom is seen in this movie, but their presence is definitely felt) is Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), joining up on the beach with Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles) attempting to get to the Mole (a pier) and a safer position where Commander Bolton (an excellent Kenneth Branagh) and his associates are located.

In the air are a number of fighter planes, most prominently one pilot in particular. That pilot is portrayed in a nearly wordless performance by Tom Hardy, once again hidden behind a mask of sorts, so he nicely plays it with his eyes. And on the sea, in the film’s most compelling and suspenseful sequences, is a boat captained by a patriotic British citizen named Dawson (a wonderful and understated Mark Rylance) who has brought along teen son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) in a bid to pick up as many soldiers as they can fit on their boat to take back to England. Their task is complicated at a point in their voyage when they first pick up a shellshocked soldier (Cillian Murphy), the sole survivor of a sunken ship who is determined not to let them steer him back toward Dunkirk. In the case of Dawson’s boat, every little effort helps, and that is what we see spelled out later in the picture when a big reveal shows numerous civilian boats (many actually the ones used at Dunkirk) like this heading to shore where the big battleships cannot go because of shallow waters. When they arrive, a simple one word of dialogue describes the meaning of this caravan: “home.” It is the kind of earned emotion Nolan has so brilliantly expressed here in such a small but important and moving way. Even without much dialogue, and perhaps because of that, this is a brilliant example of the art of screenwriting at its essence.

Of course Dunkirk will have special meaning for the British, who still use the phrase “the Dunkirk Spirit” to describe their own continued resilience, but Nolan has made a movie I think is universal and perfectly timed at this point in history where even small individual examples of heroism like this are hard to come by. He also reminds us what big-scale epic filmmaking can look like in the service of a very uniquely human event. Shot mostly with Imax cameras in 65MM, the film is a must see in the giant-screen format as well as 70MM film projection. Nolan got Warner Bros to make about 125 engagements possible in the now-almost-nonexistent big-screen 70MM film format once used for movies like Lawrence of Arabia and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I saw it in 70MM film, and it was simply stunning, and sweetly nostalgic to see reel changes again. Make every attempt to see this on as big a screen as you possibly can. This is not Netflix, or meant to be watched on an iPhone.

The craft of the movie is extraordinary as you might expect, with ace sound work, tight and superb editing from Lee Smith, a subtly unnerving career-best musical score from Hans Zimmer, and stunning cinematography from Hoyt Van Hoytema, both on water and in the skies, where aerial footage is as good as it gets. Nolan and Emma Thomas produced. Warner Bros releases the film everywhere on Friday. It’s unforgettable.

Do you plan to see Dunkirk? Let us know what you think.