the story: British soldiers try to evacuate France.
what it's all about: I've been a huge fan of Christopher Nolan for as long as he's been making movies. I can say that because I had the pleasure of enjoying Following early on, and that's his first movie, before Memento, which for a time was my favorite movie, or at least very near the top, period. So I've watched the progress of his career with great interest. Dunkirk, plain and simple, was a bid to be taken seriously by critics. It's his Saving Private Ryan, a war movie about risking terrible losses for a noble cause. Surprisingly, there are few war movies like that. That's actually all of Nolan's movies, risking terrible loss for a noble cause. Dunkirk may make that most plain for general audiences who have become more accustomed to his blockbuster material than his nuance as a filmmaking visionary, caught up in his gimmicks and getting lost along the way. But Nolan never gets lost.
The gimmick of Dunkirk is one of his most straightforward yet, and it's hugely rewarding for the rare unambiguous ending to one of his films, where the British eventually get to leave the hell of a beach under constant siege by the enemy. He follows three tracks of narratives, neatly laid out with cards explaining what they are, how long they take. Keeping track of them then becomes the business of the viewer. Tom Hardy's is shortest. As one of the few pilots trying to clear the airways of enemy fire, his work is accomplished in an hour. He's there to provide the muscle of star power. Everyone watching knows who he is, so his eyes get to do most of the work, while Michael Caine cameos early as the voice helping explain the situation. Mark Rylance, who has become a late-blooming standout in recent years, spends a day as a civilian bringing his boat, and a couple of callow youths, to the rescue. Kenneth Branagh leads the evacuating troops over the course of a week.
By the time Branagh celebrates "home," and one of the soldiers remarks that all they did was survive, and Hardy watches his ship burn, the full impact of the events comes into focus. This is not a movie that beats you over the head with its significance. This was an historic event that occurred before the Americans even entered WWII. Churchill is quoted, calling on the British to keep fighting wherever the need arise, a famous speech, at which point you get a sense of where all this falls, if you'd never heard of Dunkirk before. The experience itself, which like some of the best historic dramas seeks to immerse you directly into it, becomes the whole point, and because of those three story threads you get a good sense of what it was all about, what it took to reach the ending, without sensationalizing any of it. Rylance takes on a stowaway at one point, Cillian Murphy, who at one point was to emerge as one of Hollywood's bright new stars, but things change, and Murphy seems fine to weather a different storm, even as he suffers brilliantly in Dunkirk, in the tempered Dunkirk fashion.
I don't think it's Nolan's best movie, but it'll be the favorite of a lot of other viewers, who won't question how it fits in with the rest of his movies, who maybe will never see most of his other movies, who may not even be aware that Christopher Nolan has been a significant name in film for nearly twenty years. That's fine. Nolan's been playing by his own rules from the very start, and he's managed to create an unbroken string of success doing it, which is incredibly rare. He's always looking for that next challenge, that next depiction of the classic Nolan narrative, and he's managed to do it at a high level since 2005, when he did the first of three Batman movies. He's got an epic vision every time, but it always looks different. By virtue of its apparent awards conventions, Dunkirk may be among his most unique to date. By removing the central figure that has previously been so integral to his movies, Nolan offers a new challenge, one that will require time, perhaps, to fully absorb.
Maybe it is his best movie. Finally, an enigma wrapped up in straightforward packaging. So that's what it looks like...