One might naturally go into Dunkirk expecting a sweeping action-epic, but Nolan’s latest behemoth is surprisingly intimate. The movie is essentially divided into three parts, each taking place over a different length of time before the mass evacuation of troops from the titular city: a week-long saga of civilian sailors doing what they can to help, one long day of land troops trying to make it home, and the story of Farrier, an RAF pilot, which unfolds in just one hour.
The three sequences are elegantly woven together, each maintaining a unique identity while still fitting in comfortably with the greater whole of the movie. The sailing sequence provides the majority of Dunkirk’s emotional heart, with a simple but moving story at its center whose payoff packs genuine emotional punch. Meanwhile, the air sequences are a marvel; they’re the movie’s strongest moments thanks to their sheer visual beauty, creating a sense of quiet tranquility even during their tense dogfights. The land chapter is the movie’s weakest, but it still tells a compelling story of survival, especially during its artfully dialogue-free first fifteen minutes.
Due to the visual-heavy, dialogue-light nature of the proceedings, one might expect Dunkirk’s actors to get lost in the shuffle. That doesn’t quite happen, thanks to strong, realistic performances from the key players. Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy imbue the sea section with gravity and pathos, and Tom Hardy is somehow able to turn in a full-fledged performance despite spending nearly all of his screen time with his face obscured by a flight mask.
This is not a conventional war movie, and it’s all the better for it. There are none of the endless, deafening battle scenes that have come to define the genre in recent years, nor are there any attempts to sermonize on WWII itself. Instead, the movie is more concerned with capturing the experiences of those present, including the quiet stretches between the bursts of conflict. That’s not to say that its set pieces are ineffective – far from it. Some of the moments of chaos – the most effective being an attempt to escape a rapidly sinking ship – are among the tensest I’ve seen in a long time.
Dunkirk succeeds because it plays to Nolan’s strengths – the main one being intense, realistic action sequences that never fall prey to incoherent editing. The dialogue, which has always been one of his weak points, is minimal and functional, and its true-to-life utility makes up for its lack of flair. Nolan also manages to avoid the third-act padding that plagued The Dark Knight, Inception, and others, achieving near-perfect pacing with a tight-yet-unrushed running time of 106 minutes. Dunkirk may not be Nolan’s most revolutionary movie, but it’s easily one of his best-crafted.