For a film that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen and in the best format possible—IMAX, 70mm, some combination thereof—Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is often at its best and most terrifying when we are trapped in close confines alongside the young men fleeing the Nazi onslaught: When we are below decks as a torpedo hits a destroyer filled with troops; when we are confronted with a shell-shocked soldier on a civilian ship who refuses to go below deck; when we are trapped inside a cockpit filling with water as the pilot struggles to open its jammed door.
Dunkirk is the most exhilaratingly harrowing cinematic experience since Gravity, 90-or-so minutes of armchair-gripping tension. It's essentially a final act as film—specifically, a Christopher Nolan final act, one in which he cuts together three competing and continuous timelines for a coherent whole. Think back to The Dark Knight Rises, where Batman's fight with Bane, Gordon's effort to track down the neutron bomb, and Blake's attempts to get a group of school kids over a bridge and out of the city are seamlessly interwoven. Or remember Inception‘s slick movement through the "levels" of dreams, from the falling van to the gravity-free hotel to the mountainside assault.
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In Dunkirk, we are confronted with similar levels and similar tricks of time: Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is our man on the beach at Dunkirk, his action taking place over the course of a week; Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) is the captain of a civilian boat headed across the channel with his son and a local boy to pick up Tommy and the rest of the Tommies; and in the air we are mainly with Farrier (Tom Hardy), providing support and cover in an effort to stop German dive-bombers from taking out the British transport ships.
Nolan's screenplay is laconic. This is not the story of a band of brothers trying to get home to their sweethearts; we do not learn to love anyone individually for their bravery or their heroism or their personality quirks. It's not the story of a person or persons. Rather, this is the story of a nation. There's a reason Dunkirk‘s land-based protagonist shares the nickname for common British troops, why every soldier in this film is a slim young man with a gaunt face and a mop of blackish-brownish hair. Some will find this confusing—indeed, I did at times—but that confusion is intentional, and not in the typical way of such war films that flatten complicated ideas of bravery and cowardice into simplistic statements like "the fog of war." Nolan plants confusion in our minds about whom, exactly, we are looking at on the beach and in the water as they scramble for safety because this isn't a story about one man who lived or died.
It's the story of more than 300,000.