Christopher Nolan is back with another bombshell. If you’ve lost hope this summer, surrounded by tired sequels and reboots, there’s good news: deliverance has arrived – a breathtaking war epic that both reinvents the genre, and sheds light on a crucial point in history that is too often ignored.
Christopher Nolan is one of the paramount auteurs of his generation. Since he first toyed with reality in Memento, he has built a reputation on brain-teasing experimentation and intricate plotting. His dense 2010 masterpiece Inception is one of the most sophisticated films of the decade. 2014’s Interstellar was equally ambitious, though at times his reach exceeded his grasp.
Nolan’s latest project represents a change of form. His tenth film doesn’t feature superheroes or manipulations of space and time, but factually-based drama. The director’s shift in focus could disappoint fans hoping for a new gimmick, but this maturation as a filmmaker demonstrates a diversification of his portfolio, and an assertion of his authority to the unconverted.
Dunkirk is Nolan’s riveting reenactment of the 1940 evacuation of the Allied Forces across the English Channel during World War II. For those unfamiliar, Operation Dynamo was a pivotal turning point in the European Theater. Stranded at Dunkirk’s beach, nearly the entirety of the English and French forces faced annihilation at the hands of the Germans.
Thanks to a critical strategic flub by Hitler, Britain succeeded at ferrying 300,000 soldiers across the English Channel. The press hailed the incident as a miraculous triumph, but Churchill was quick to stress that it was a colossal military disaster, adding that “wars are not won by evacuations.” Hitler’s failure was among the decisive factors in his eventual downfall, but as the event didn’t involve the United States, it sees very little attention in our country.
When the majority of Americans are oblivious to a monumental milestone of history, it helps to have a British-born filmmaker pulling strings in Hollywood. Similar to Inception, Dunkirk is a project Nolan has been contemplating for decades, first conceiving it during a stormy crossing of the English Channel with his wife 25 years ago. Unsurprisingly, he was fascinated by the complex inner workings that were crucial to the operation’s success.
From its opening shot to its last, Dunkirk is far from a conventional war film. In studying the evacuation, Nolan saw potential not for explosive spectacle, but for heart-stopping suspense. He found inspiration not in Apocalypse Now and Saving Private Ryan, but in North by Northwest by Alfred Hitchcock and Unstoppable by Tony Scott.
Clocking in at 106 minutes, Dunkirk is considerably leaner in comparison to Nolan’s past films, many of which push the three-hour mark. The director has described the movie as consisting completely of the content that tends to make up the third acts of his usual fare, an intense snowball effect driving the stakes to a volatile climax. Nolan found this approach necessary to accurately communicate the full scope of the experience through all perspectives at the lowest levels, never once featuring Churchill or generals in a war room.
Dunkirk rekindles the war epic not through suspense alone, but through Nolan’s signature style of writing. As seen in films like Memento, the innovator loves to tinker with traditional modes of exposition, and the events of Dunkirk offer the perfect playground for non-linear storytelling. The film is told through three perspectives: the land, the sea, and the sky, each plot thread ranging from one hour to one week’s time to enfold.
Nolan’s convergence of events that don’t occur simultaneously both conveys the full scale of the crisis, and blazes new ground in editing and script-writing processes. Considering Dunkirk concerns primarily an evacuation and not warfare, Nolan’s choice to deliver suspense over action fits its subject matter perfectly. In addition, the more broadly marketable PG-13 rating signifies taste in this case rather than a lack of spine.
By opting to delve straight into the excitement straight from the opening sequence, Dunkirk is noticeably lighter on emotional impact than Nolan’s past work. As the feature’s primary goal is to dramatize the full scope of a massive military operation, this serves the material well, but it leaves little room for deep characterizations. Though the end result is inevitably more superficial, Nolan’s decision to bypass background material achieves his tightest example of restraint in years.
However brief its characters appear, the film still manages to offer a realized cast of personalities that enrich the experience. In his newest offering, Nolan presents a savvy roster of players including Fionn Whitehead, James D’Arcy, and Mark Rylance, as well as frequent collaborators Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy, and an unexpected debut of genuine acting chops from One Direction’s Harry Styles.
Dunkirk might not represent the rich imagination Nolan has built his reputation on, but it’s a magnificently crafted demonstration of the director’s ingenious precision and attention to detail that solidify his status as a cinematic maestro. By tackling content that is perceived as more sophisticated, Nolan will secure the respect of those who are critical of his more eccentric concepts, and he is sure to command the spotlight this Oscar season.
Warner Bros. Pictures, Syncopy Inc.
Directed by Christopher Nolan.
Produced by Emma Thomas and Christopher Nolan.
Written by Christopher Nolan.
Starring Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy.
Released July 21, 2017.