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Dunkirk turns a WWII battle into a symphony. It's Christopher Nolan's masterpiece.

It’s no ordinary war film.

Fionn Whitehead in Dunkirk
Fionn Whitehead in Dunkirk
Melinda Sue Gordon / 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC and Ratpac Entertainment, LLC
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The 1940 Battle of Dunkirk — when 330,000 British and Allied forces, surrounded by the enemy, were evacuated in a way that seems almost miraculous — was almost instantly turned into legend by the British press. Of particular interest were the “little ships” that sailed into danger, and the ordinary people who piloted them in order to help shuttle troops onto the larger boats that stood ready to bring them to English shores. The “little ships” were a fixed point of courage for the weary civilians to brace against as they held the line at home.

The events of the battle have been dramatized stirringly several times since — most notably in the 1958 movie Dunkirk, the 1964 French film Weekend at Dunkirk, and the 2007 Atonement, with its indelible five-minute sweeping shot over the beach. And earlier this year, the film Their Finest dramatized how the story could be polished, humanized, and smoothed out for inspirational movies made by the Ministry of Information to prop up the embattled spirits of the British people, who were living in the shadow of air raids and unsure if they’d make it to the next morning.

But it seems that in approaching the story, Christopher Nolan sensed that it was more than a historical event. His extraordinary Dunkirk, a true cinematic achievement, backs off conventional notions of narrative and chronology as much as possible, while leaning headfirst into everything else that makes a movie a visceral work of art aimed at the senses: the images, the sounds, the scale, the swelling vibrations of it all. You can’t smell the sea spray, but your brain may trick you into thinking you can.

Nolan’s camera pushes the edges of the screen as far as it can — you must see this movie in IMAX and on film, rather than digital, if at all possible — as Dunkirk engulfs the audience in something that feels a lot more like a symphony than a war movie. (Nolan’s fruitful collaboration with composer Hans Zimmer certainly helps.) There are movements and pizzicato riffs that shift from guns to violins and back again. Shouts and pauses might as well be written into the score. Sometimes it’s not clear if the rumble you feel in your stomach is a sustained double bass or the engine of a fighter plane.

The men watch bombers overhead in Dunkirk.
The men watch bombers overhead in Dunkirk.
Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC and Ratpac Entertainment, LLC

If the result holds individual characters at a bit of a remove, then, it isn’t by accident. The enormity of the potential destruction, and the scale of the evacuation and defensive military action, would likely be hampered if the film indulged in too much narrative buildup or character backstory. Dunkirk wants us to sense what made this moment so pivotal without reducing it to an individual tale. And at that, it succeeds richly.

Dunkirk pulls back from individual characters’ stories in order to craft a more sweeping narrative

Note: Mild spoilers for Dunkirk follow.

Dunkirk follows an ensemble cast who play characters not just in three different places but in three different timelines. It gives viewers only the narrative broad strokes, and then trusts them to track its many characters for the rest of the film, assisting them through the use of light and darkness as visual clues, and showing the same events from different perspectives.

Those broad strokes: There are two young soldiers (Aneurin Barnard and Fionn Whitehead) who cross paths, and we follow them over a week as they try to get off the beach, eventually falling in with a pack of soldiers led by a charismatic young man (Harry Styles). A colonel (Kenneth Branagh) directs operations from a pier extending into the sea. Then there are the ships at sea, particularly a fishing boat named the Moonstone piloted by a man (Mark Rylance) and his son (Tom Glynn-Carney), aided by a young man named George (Barry Keoghan). And finally, there are a few fighter pilots in the air (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden), whom we follow over an hour as they try to take down German planes and provide cover.

This nonlinear approach is no surprise coming from Nolan, who has a history of playing with time and viewer expectations in films ranging from Memento (which is told nonlinearly) to Interstellar (which utilizes cyclical time as part of its internal logic).

Mark Rylance in Dunkirk
Mark Rylance in Dunkirk.
Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC and Ratpac Entertainment, LLC

Unlike some of Nolan’s other films, like The Prestige, Dunkirk isn’t trying to trick the viewer into believing something, only to pull the rug out from under them. But while comparatively straightforward, his nonlinear approach still makes the film more difficult to follow than the typical war movie, and Nolan may lose points with some for not taking a strictly chronological approach to the story — which he’s already crafting with an uncharacteristically direct sense of purpose, for a director who’s known for being a bit of a trickster. But in settling the story onto three planes of time and having them all converge on each other near the end, Dunkirk pulls off a feat unusual to its genre.

World War II movies (and historical war movies in general) tend to narrow their focus to one man, or maybe a few, and that often works; we’re made to care about a soldier because of where he came from, what he left at home, and who he is. We’re meant to sympathize with him and thus want him to live. And if he’s a hero, then the film’s drama and tension — and, usually, inspirational triumph — come from watching this person whom we’ve come to care about succeed. In short, we’re expected to care about this person because they’ve become, however temporarily, a sort of friend.

The closest that Dunkirk comes to this mode of storytelling is in the fishing boat sections, where three men who aren’t part of the military don’t have to be asked twice to head off and do their duty. But even then, we get scant information about them — enough to make us care about their fates, but not much more.

Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, and Fionn Whitehead in Dunkirk 
Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, and Fionn Whitehead in Dunkirk.
Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC and Ratpac Entertainment, LLC

For the soldiers, we get even less. They exist in this moment, and are nearly anonymous to the audience otherwise: All we know is they don’t want to die, but they’re almost positive this is the end. And because the film is so immersive, we feel that desire alongside them. Shells drop from the sky near them and they barely duck, dulled to the danger by being bathed in it for so long. The drive to survive is all they have, and they barely even have that: At one point, we watch a man stride across the surf-covered beach, shed his helmet and pack, and swim directly into the surf. Survival is the only desire, and it grows dim. That it doesn’t flicker out entirely is a miracle.

The converging planes of time in Dunkirk help underline how serendipitous, even providential, the battle’s end result actually was. Some of it was attributable to skill, to pilots who could take out a bomber and captains who could maneuver ships through choppy seas. Some of it was courage: colonels who stayed till the end, young men still in their teens willing and ready to do whatever they could. And some of it was just good timing — everyone doing whatever they could do as boldly as they could do it, and all the pieces adding up to a whole.

The ending of Dunkirk is not pure triumph — and that’s a good thing

Yet Dunkirk is not a solely triumphant film. There’s something about the enormity of the image (and the richness of the stock it’s shot on) that feels apocalyptic, especially with Zimmer’s score wrestling its way through the collateral noise of war.

Tom Hardy in Dunkirk
Tom Hardy in Dunkirk.
Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC and Ratpac Entertainment, LLC

These are familiar images to us from past movies: the broad, sweeping beach with its lines of soldiers hoping for deliverance, and the coast of England just on the other side of the water. But the nearness of death and the grim looks on the men’s faces, mixed with fire and falling bombs and drowning, feels less like watching a historical event than the end of the world. That makes the appearance of civilians in small boats feel like angels coming over the horizon, as the soldiers on the beach must have felt.

But the film’s brief coda is an essential caveat to all of this. Nobody knew, at Dunkirk, how the war would end. The soldiers leave with their heads low, feeling defeated, as indeed they were. The civilian sailors went home and waited for what would happen next. Invasion seemed imminent and victory by no means a given.

From the distance of history, we can tend to forget this, ascribing a kind of triumphalism to the end of the war and fooling ourselves into thinking that the “good guys” will always win. And though we know what happens after Dunkirk ends, the ending feels ambiguous, not wrapped up neatly at all.

Dunkirk is a symphony for the brave and broken, and it resolves in a major key — but one with an undercurrent of sorrow, and of sober warning. Courage in the face of danger is not just for characters in movies.

Dunkirk opens in theaters on July 21.

This article has been updated to clarify the role of one of the film’s characters in the plot.

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