Christopher Nolan returns to form with tense, thrilling war film “Dunkirk”

Justin Jones

Christopher Nolan, the master behind thrilling mindbenders like “The Prestige” and “Inception,” has put his own personal spin on classic World War II films with “Dunkirk,” his best movie in years.

After a few down years with the fun but daft “The Dark Knight Rises” and the overly convoluted “Interstellar,” some began to worry Nolan had lost his ability to write tight, logical scripts. “Dunkirk” puts those worries to rest, as it boasts his strongest script in nearly a decade, as well as wonderful direction and a note-perfect, all-star cast — including pop star Harry Styles.

The film is split into three different chapters, all set at a different point in time leading up to the now-famous “Miracle of Dunkirk,” the 1940 evacuation of British troops in Dunkirk, France as Axis forces closed in. The soldiers on the Dunkirk beach consist of Styles and about 50 attractive young white men who look just like Styles. Their lives depends on the efforts of others, and their tale is one of survival. The second timeline follows an old sailor (Mark Rylance) and two children as they bravely leave their hometown on a tiny yacht to sail across the channel and rescue as many soldiers as they can fit. The third, and most tense, chapter follows Royal Air Force pilots led by Tom Hardy as they attempt to ensure the safety of the skies, so the evacuation can proceed unhindered. Each of these chapters are told concurrently, intercutting across timelines, leaving the viewer discombobulated but still aware of what is going on.

Reminiscent of the nonlinear style of Nolan's earlier works, the structure of “Dunkirk” forces the viewer to pay close attention and build a cohesive timeline in their own head. Many initially worried that the film may not feel like a typical Nolan movie because it was based on a true story, but those fears can be laid to rest — the nonlinear war film proves a cosmically perfect task for the filmmaker.

Many of Nolan’s films require an excessive amount of exposition, essentially forcing characters to explain the plot just so the story can make sense. Unfortunately, dialogue is not the filmmaker’s strong suit, so these scenes end up feeling awkward and shoehorned. Nolan outgrows this tendency in “Dunkirk,” expecting intelligence on behalf of the audience and allowing long stretches of wordless storytelling to speak for themselves.

Much controversy has been made of the myriad formats in which one can see “Dunkirk,” with Nolan professing his preference for IMAX 70mm projection, while the wallets of college students prefer regular, digitally projected screens. The sheer beauty of the images captured by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and the engrossing sound mixing justify the price of a larger-format ticket, but those without access to an IMAX or 70mm projection should not worry. What matters is that “Dunkirk” is one of the greatest films from one of the best directors alive, and it would still be great even if it was only on iPhones.

Between the nontraditional storytelling, the innate intensity of war and Hans Zimmer’s unsettling score, all of “Dunkirk” is the beginning of a roller coaster, raising the level of suspense without release. As such, it is an exhausting watch, but one that demands to be seen on the largest, brightest screen possible


Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 106 minutes

Score: 4.5/5 stars