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‘Dunkirk’ Review: Christopher Nolan’s Monumental War Epic Is The Best Film He’s Ever Made

“Dunkirk” is a bloodless but profoundly unnerving assault on the senses, a spectacle that searches for order in the midst of chaos.

Dunkirk Christopher Nolan

‘Dunkirk”

Meanwhile — but really a few days later — England’s citizen sailors are called to action. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance, embodying a caricature of workaday nobility) is one such citizen, and he doesn’t think twice about sailing his wobbly yacht towards the storm. His 19-year-old son (Tom Glynn-Carney playing a Very Good Boy) makes for a very handy first mate, but his friend George (“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” breakout Barry Keoghan) isn’t quite as useful. An overeager boy who senses an opportunity to define himself, George hops onto the boat at the last second, unaware of what the day might have in store for him.

The beating heart of a broadly unsentimental film, George is Nolan’s equivalent of the Girl in the Red Coat from “Schindler’s List,” a beacon of humanity in a sea of indifference. His fate might frustrate viewers who feel that Nolan has finally found a project that suits his clinical demeanor, but the character is essential to a story that’s hellbent on internalizing the randomness that most war movies relegate to the background. Nolan’s fumbles are reserved for Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton, whose classified knowledge of the grim situation at hand doesn’t bleed into anything real.

Above the ruckus, on a sunny afternoon that stands out from the frigid gray palettes of the other threads, an RAF Spitfire piloted by Tom Hardy is locked in a dogfight with the Luftwaffe. The actor has even less dialogue than the rest of the cast, and all of his words are so thoroughly garbled by his oxygen mask that it feels like Nolan only made him speak out of spite for the people who complained about Bane. No matter, the aerial sequences are awe-inspiring all the same.

“Virtual reality without the headset” Nolan has called the experience of seeing this in its proper glory, and he wasn’t kidding — “Dunkirk” is the ultimate fuck you to the idea of streaming a new movie to your phone. The director and his team customized an IMAX rig so the camera could squeeze into the cockpit of a WWII fighter plane, and the footage they captured from the sky is so transportive that every ticket should earn you frequent flier miles. One shot, in which we share a pilot’s POV as they make a crash landing on the water, singlehandedly justifies this entire portion of the film long before Nolan inevitably converges it with the other two for the rousing final act.

But “Dunkirk” isn’t the most astounding experience ever offered by the IMAX format because of its bravura moments, but rather because Nolan takes advantage of the massive screen during the more intimate ones as well. He and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema shot roughly 75% of the film on IMAX 65mm stock, gambling on the hope that the visual splendor of the larger images would be worth the discombobulation of cutting between aspect rations from scene to scene, or even shot to shot.

Is it ever. The beaches of Dunkirk stretch from the sand to the stratosphere, van Hoytema bisecting his frames into two thick swatches of muted color that resemble the most hopeless of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s “Seascapes.” The soldiers feel humiliatingly small. Elsewhere, Mr. Dawson’s gentle grimace is rendered 16 stories high. The decision not to assign one format to the action setpieces and another to the dramatic interludes allows Nolan’s film to sustain a baseline intensity (and horror) from start to finish — it’s one of many decisions geared towards preserving the present tense at all costs.

From the layered structure of its narrative to the fetishistically tactile nature of Nolan’s approach, “Dunkirk” never allows its characters to feel like they’re safe. Their fears compound each others as the film bends time to its will, editor Lee Smith cross-cutting between a midnight sequence of sailors trapped in the hull of a sinking ship and a mid-day episode in which a Spitfire pilot tries to unjam the hatch of his plane as water fills the cockpit. The terror rolls in like the waves of a constant tide; when one panic recedes, another incrementally more dangerous one takes its place. There’s a bracing measure of catharsis when the storylines converge and your shell-shock melts into relief, but “Dunkirk” is a movie without a proper beginning or an end, without supporting characters or side-plots or any other kind of periphery. It’s a movie that’s told from the middle, that expands from the inside out until the spectacle of it all is so immense that it blots out everything beyond the tick tick tick of the terror at hand.

Neither as poetic as “The Thin Red Line” nor as savage as “Saving Private Ryan,” Nolan’s contribution to the war genre owes less to its forefathers than it does unbearably anxious thrillers like “The Wages of Fear” or even “United 93.” Riding Hans Zimmer’s typically bombastic score, which abandons melody in favor of ratcheting up the tension, “Dunkirk” leverages raw suspense in order to cut its characters away from their context and throw them back onto themselves. Few movies have so palpably conveyed the sheer isolation of fear, and the extent to which history is often made by people who are just trying to survive it — few movies have so vividly illustrated that one man can only do as much for his country as a country can do for one of its men. But Nolan, by stressing that grim truth to its breaking point, returns from the fray with a commanding testament to a simple idea: We may die alone, but we live together.

Grade: A

“Dunkirk” opens in theaters on July 21st, and will be screening in a variety of formats. IndieWire strongly recommends the IMAX 70mm experience if possible.

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