Dunkirk is a masterpiece, full stop.
While The Dark Knight might be the most important and best-remembered of Christopher Nolan’s films, Dunkirk will go down as his best. It’s Nolan at his apex, a true flex in filmmaking that harkens back to the days of Spielberg and Kubrick in their prime.
Dunkirk is a culmination of everything we’ve come to associate Nolan with over the course of his two-decade career. Every little trick and trope he picked up since Following in 1999 is flawlessly perfected.
Nolan’s love of playing with time and tension is on full display, with the crosscutting he’s been known to use as a crescendo to his stories used throughout the entire film. Dunkirk is what a third act would be if it were an entire film; the tension grabs us in the first frame and the catharsis isn’t felt until the final moments of the movie. The audience is thrown straight into the tension of Dunkirk, and while we have no basis for the terror the men are feeling, it builds over time to a point where the unseen tension at the beginning of the film is suddenly understood even if it was unseen.
A brilliant sleight of hand that Dunkirk uses is perhaps the oldest Nolan trope — his ability to bend time to fit his story. Chronology is not a word in the Nolan vocabulary, not even when he’s seemingly making a conventional film. There’s nothing science fiction or comic book-y about Dunkirk, which is through and through a war movie. But Nolan takes his knack for shuffling chronology to create a unique realness to the effects of war. Day becomes night which becomes day again and so on. We repeat moments in the movie from different perspectives — the sinking of a medical ship, the crashing of a Spitfire plane — not for dramatic effect but to create a sense that we’re truly stuck in a loop of wartime horror. To be fair, this is used in the finale of the film to create tension about whether certain characters live or not, but its main effect is to compound time and create a frenzied sense of urgency in which chronology matters less than frantically trying to survive.
Nolan also takes the trust we’ve built up in him over the years to produce films that are truly epic in scope and uses that against us. There’s claustrophobia to Dunkirk that goes beyond the rising tension of the score — which is another Nolan special used to perfection. Hans Zimmer is to Nolan what John Williams is to Steven Spielberg, and Zimmer’s score vacillating between anxiously humming in the background or barreling to the forefront acts as a way to subconsciously build tension without being obvious about it. But visually, Nolan takes the epic, wide-open scope of his three settings and closes in the walls. Whenever we’re on the beach with Tommy, we’re suffocating in clusters of soldiers or trapped in a boat that’s either being used as target practice or filling up with water. While in the air, the camera rarely leaves the closed quarters of the cockpit and when it does the placement of the camera causes us to feel an uneasiness as the Spitfires glide through the air without a flight path. While at sea, we’re either trapped in the bowels of a destroyer or confined to nothing more than the deck of a small luxury boat. Nolan uses the canvas of extremely epic settings and finds ways to capture the most uncomfortable spaces within them.
Then there are the characters, who in of themselves are a striking commentary on war and what Dunkirk was all about. Aside from looking it up, one would be hard-pressed to recall any of the character’s names in the movie, something that would indicate a lack of character development if not for a steady hand like Nolan at the helm. The character’s names are purposefully unimportant parts of a greater whole, lost in the spectacle of everything that is happening at Dunkirk. Here’s a filmmaker who made his name on some of the most memorable characters in the history of storytelling and in his masterpiece stripped away the meaning of what names are to the power of a story. This wasn’t one person saving the day, this was England banding together and powering through literal troubled waters with a stiff-upper-lip; British pride is the hero of the story.
Knowing the name of Fionn Whitehead’s character doesn’t matter because he’s the nameless faceless soldier seen in so many documents of World War II that don’t need a label to feel its gravity. We don’t need to know what Tom Hardy’s character name to feel the heroics of his actions, and ditto for Mark Rylance’s elder weekend sailor. The only name we do learn is George, who happens to be the only character we follow who dies during the rescue.
Which leads to the overall message: Dunkirk is a story about triumph in failure. This is a constant throughout Nolan’s films — Batman becoming an outcast for the greater good of Gotham, Cobb finding purpose after his wife’s death, Cooper sacrificing himself but falling into an event horizon which connects him through time and space to his daughter, the list goes on. Dunkirk was a colossal military failure but the rescue of the British soldiers meant that England lived to fight another day and World War II wasn’t lost before it truly began. The catharsis of the tension built throughout the film isn’t a giant battle of good versus evil, it’s a bunch of boats crossing the channel to take their boys home. Like the characters who are present even if their names escape us, Dunkirk was an important in-between moment of much better remembered — and more heroic — moments from the war that have been romanticized throughout history. But Nolan uses his ability to tell a story where there’s a triumph in failure to make what happened at Dunkirk feel as heroic as any of the other stories told from the war. Perhaps that’s the same British stiff upper lip attitude that the sailors arriving at Dunkirk had, but it works to masterful effect.
Dunkirk is Nolan’s greatest achievement. It’s the culmination of his talents both on the screen and behind the camera. From the storytelling that pulls from all his works prior to the technical soundness of everything from the integration and use of the score to the practical effects and use of innovative movie magic (just like how an entire rotating hallway was created for Inception‘s finest setpiece, Nolan custom-built dual-pilot Spitfires that he mounted IMAX cameras on to both capture the scope of the horizon at sea and to trick us into thinking the actors were flying the planes), Dunkirk is Nolan at his peak. This is what it was like to watch Jordan in the middle of his run with the Bulls or Ali dominating the ring in his prime. There will be discussions about which of Nolan’s films will be his best remembered but there’s no debate that Dunkirk is his masterpiece.