Dunkirk is, in a measured 106 minutes, one of the most impressively crafted films of recent memory, and Christopher Nolan’s greatest achievement, so far, as a filmmaker — something that holds immeasurable weight considering that this is the director of The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception and Interstellar.
The three threads of the story — land, sea and air — occur on different timelines. But the concept is executed on an ingenious level. There’s never a sense of narrative momentum slowing down with these jumps, and that’s because they never actually slow down. Each thread, even if touching on story beats we’ve already met, is running forward with unstoppable force. The narratives are always progressing.
As the film unfolds, we get a sense that the slippage of time, of one thread onto another, is just the beginning of a process. The threads start to get closer and closer. The characters colliding. Hans Zimmer’s score building. Their space narrowing down to a single place in time. And as they coalesce — after hours of viscerally immersive cinematography and practical effects, in the cockpits of real Spitfires, on the actual sand of the Dunkirk beaches, on the cramped decks of a civilian boat actually out in the waters, all toned by a bone-shakingly haunting soundscape — the tension overwhelms one into a transfixed terror.
While Dunkirk doesn’t actually bleed, except for a brief moment, the film’s veins do bleed with senselessness. There is no mercy in war. No simple path. No logic. There is only terror. And Nolan’s film does that as well as war films with blood.
And yet, all would be for only so much were the film not laced with every ounce of humanity Nolan could bring to it. The emotions that Nolan concerns himself with are the heroics of war within the faceless, within the nameless. Men whom history won’t remember as anything other than nameless and faceless. As the film rises from the terror, and as composer Benjamin Wallfisch’s Variation 15, a version of Edward Elgar’s Nimrod, plays, Dunkirk proves its unbearably moving heart, a hear that renders survival as victory.