Dunkirk is a testament to Christopher Nolan’s (Interstellar) ability to control his vision. It is a terrible beauty of a film that makes war about as personal as it can get and still show you the big picture. But it isn’t an easy film to discuss because Nolan employs a dozen points of view, laying out multiple time lines; it has almost no script and, to top it off, no real resolution. The film is practically Cubist in its design, offering us a whole via all the points of view from land, sea, and air with no single character providing the through-line. This approach leaves no real focus other than the titular event itself; the event of Dunkirk is the only real character. Basically, it is more a beautiful piece of art than a great story. If you are looking for more of the story to understand the war, the English people, and what led to that day, see The Darkest Hour in close proximity to this movie which give more of a homefront view.
But it deserves notice that there are not many filmmakers who could have pulled off looking at a critical moment in WWII this way without sensationalizing or romanticizing it. Nolan even makes a crashed Allied plane a symbol of triumph rather than disaster…and not wanting that be the final word, he pulls back to make it personal and to make us consider some horror as to the cost of it all for the final moment. That final frame changes the filter for the film, a feat only a very few directors have ever pulled off.
Because of these aspects, this is a movie whose biggest triumph is the craft behind it rather than what we would view as a traditional story. You can see the love and careful effort Nolan put into setting up his frames and editing sequences. Heck, the sound design alone is worth the time to experience this film. It is a subliminal drive of a beating heart that keeps you on edge and engaged, dropping back just enough at times to keep you from being exhausted or numb. Again, few films achieve that level of perfect manipulation; the original Alien is one of the few that ever has. The performances are all good, but they aren’t what makes it work. They are incidental, in many ways, to the story of Dunkirk, and war, itself.
I missed this on the big screen it deserved; it does deserve a huge screen. But with a large screen or not, it is worth experiencing at least once for its impact and craft. After you’ve seen it once, then worry about the debate of it as a movie or simply an animated diorama.