Dunkirk — the latest feature from writer/director Christopher Nolan — isn’t like any other war movie. That’s because Dunkirk isn’t the story of a famous victory, but of an infamous retreat. The year is 1940 and the German army has surrounded the British on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, pinning their backs against the English Channel. Though they can see home, safety seems like an ocean away.
Since the inception of cinema, movies have treated war as a team sport played by individuals. There is no such simplicity in Dunkirk. Instead, the audience is given a truly immersive experience by watching a narrative that moves freely from character to character, from land to sea to sky. No back-stories are given, no motivations are needed, no sympathetic traits to identify with, just the chaos of battle and the simple scramble to survive.
This omnipresence is what separates Dunkirk from the rest. Though the story settles into three distinct segments — Air: Tom Hardy as a Spitfire pilot protecting Destroyer vessels from German aircraft; Land: Kenneth Branagh as a Naval Commander trying to evacuate 338,000 soldiers; and Sea: Mark Rylance as a civilian sailor dispatched by the British government to sail across the Channel in his yacht and rescue as many men as possible — they exist to provide just enough grounding for the audience to stand on.
But movies are not history and Dunkirk is no report. Nolan is less interested in capturing what happened on that beach than he is with how it must have felt to be there. He accomplishes this by collapsing the time frame of all three stories into one propulsive drive. Historically speaking, Hardy’s air battle takes place over the course of one hour, Rylance’s journey across the Channel covers one day, and the evacuation of the beach takes one week. Similar to how memory collapses time in the mind, Dunkirk smashes these three timelines together and gives you the sensation of flying in that plane, sailing in that boat and waiting on those shores.
This level of immersion, assisted greatly by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s 70mm image and the roaring sound design, is no easy feat. Another movie in theaters this summer, Detroit — about the civil unrest and brutal violence of the 1967 Detroit riots — also tries to give the notion of omnipresence, but unfortunately settles in for a long and tortured look at one specific incident involving a group of men and two women. The first 20 or so minutes of Detroit are impressive and invigorating. The following two hours are a letdown.
History will always be material and background for movies, but how these stories are told is just as significant as what the story is about. Dunkirk is not just a story of a major turning point in the war, of scared children fighting for their country and of Britain’s stiff upper lip that allowed them to keep calm and carry on. Sure, it’s all that and more, but what makes it work, what makes Dunkirk an awe-inspiring spectacle in 2017, is that Nolan knows exactly what he’s got and never lets off the gas.