Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France are surrounded by the German Army, and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II.
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 1h 46min
There's Cillian Murphy getting pulled out of the water, wide-eyed with shell shock, onto one of the hundreds of private boats that were requisitioned to help get as many men as possible home from the coastal city where they'd been surrounded by German forces. There's pop star Harry Styles, in his movie debut, tucked into the group of men who have to swim back to land after their ship is bombed. His character, one of three pointy brunette boys who end up casting their lots together while speaking almost not at all, is listed as "Alex," a name which, if it was mentioned at all onscreen, I never caught. Murphy's character gets no name at all — he's just "Shivering Soldier."
Dunkirk isn't indifferent to individuals so much as it takes place on a scale not meant to accommodate them — it's focus is too wide, IMAX-wide if you can swing it and have the film fill your field of vision. It's a war movie that pushes back against all the usual expectations of war movies, with their focus on a humanizing backstory and distinguishing acts of bravery which set someone apart from the crowd, those tried-and-true ways to emphasize which deaths matter. You never see the faces of German soldiers on screen in Dunkirk, or bother with much context on the greater conflict. It isn't the story of a victory but of a miraculous escape, in the wake of what British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called "a colossal military disaster." Its constant, nerve-racking tension comes from its three levels of adrenaline-addled immediacy.
This approach might sound chilly, but Dunkirk turns out to be one of the best things Nolan has ever done, a cerebral act of shock and awe that plays into all of his strengths as a filmmaker. Characters have never been one of them, aside from the obsessive men he adores in ways that indicate they're the only figures onscreen he really relates to, attempting to fit worlds around them rather than the other way around. There's a reason Nolan's greatest film, The Prestige, is the one that doesn't try to normalize the monstrous sacrifices its dueling protagonists make for their craft. In Dunkirk, there aren't really characters, and there's no space for families, love interests, or the other human dramas Nolan can barely pretend to take interest in. In Dunkirk, obsession makes sense, because all of its characters are united in the same large-scale goal.
Where other war movies tend to instinctively close in on personal stories, Dunkirk attempts to grapple, sometimes almost in the abstract, with what it means to be part of a collective, to be just one of a sea of uniformed bodies presented in battle. For the young men on the beach, played by Barnard, Styles, and Whitehead, it's a terrifying prospect, as they search for a way to not be in the part of the army that, they're sure, is set to be captured or killed. For Hardy up above and Rylance down on the water it's inspiring, urging them into feats of potential sacrifice for the greater good. If anything, that's what Dunkirk is about — what it means to go against all animal instincts of personal survival to risk your life for a community.