You pretty much should see anything Christopher Nolan does. He makes great movies. I don’t want to throw that term around lightly so I’ll just say that Dunkirk is a movie you MUST see in a theatre, and you should see it in IMAX 2D at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, the best screen in the nation. If you can’t see it there, then just go see it on the largest screen possible.
Nolan has always used time shifts in his films to great effect – from Memento to Inception to Interstellar. Again he takes this unconventional narrative structure into the the conventional war movie and shows us things in a way we haven’t seen before.
There are three main storylines (1) The Mole, (2) The Sea and (3) The Air.. They are identified by title cards and all begin at different points of the Dunkirk retreat and they all converge into the same timeline at the end.
There are standard war movie conventions – acts of courage, tragedies, and the horrors of war. There is no backstory on the characters and only the slightest of exposition snuck into the film in a way that hardly anyone will notice.
In The Mole, it is a matter of survival as three young soliders are trapped on the beach at Dunkirk one week before the final scene. In a reversal of most war films, just surviving is winning and retreating is the ultimate goal. The speculation is that the Germans could have won WWII right there had they defeated the trapped British army at Dunkirk instead of stopping short and letting them escape. Newcomer Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles are the main parts of this storyline as they try to survive and escape the beach at Dunkirk.
The Sea starts 1 day before and is about the civilians who set out in small boats to rescue the British army. This is a very heroic arc where tragedy strikes. Mark Rylance really carries the film here as the moral center.
The Air starts 1 hour before and is basically Tom Hardy as the ultimate hero pilot who saves the retreating soldiers down below.
What makes this an exceptional film is how Nolan weaves the three narratives together as he jumps around in time to the thrilling climactic scene where all the characters come together for a brief moment. He uses every technical trick in his arsenal. The sound design and score by Hans Zimmer are essential as this movie starts with high tension and maintains it throughout.
This is efficient, effective storytelling with no fat, lean and taut. That is very hard to achieve. I equate this to an Olympic dive. Nolan has gone for a very high degree of difficulty and completely nailed it.
All that being said, only one thing bothered me. I think something was missing in the arc of the Cillian Murphy character which was in The Sea narrative. He is a shell shocked solider rescued by Mark Rylance and he does something awful. In the middle of the film, we flash back in The Mole story and we see Murphy as a confident and put together solider on a small boat leaving Dunkirk. What we don’t see is the attack on his boat that turns Murphy into the shell of the solider. I picked up on it, I doubt very many other people will but it is a very minor story point that I thought was not clear.
Four stars out of four.