REVIEW: 'Dunkirk' is Christopher Nolan's best film to date

Fionn Whitehead as Tommy in  Dunkirk , directed by Christopher Nolan.

Fionn Whitehead as Tommy in Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan.

Those familiar with Christopher Nolan’s work know that he’s a very technical director, whose films stand out for their complexity, non-linear narratives, and camera barrel rolls, yet still manages to tell a coherent story. Dunkirk is his first venture into historical war dramas, a genre that has been explored from all sorts of different angles and perspectives and provided us with some of the most memorable films in history, but Nolan continues to break new ground.

It’s a genre that’s traditionally begs even the most steely-eyed men to reach deep into their emotional reservoirs, for budgets to accommodate big action sequences and big explosions, and for blood and gore to fly across the screen for maximum shock value. Dunkirk manages to succeed in spite of those things. The soldiers don’t pull out wrinkled old photos of girlfriends and wives awaiting their safe return, the musical score provides most of the sound effects, and there are no maimed bodies or dismembered limbs to be seen.

The raging debate now isn’t whether or not Dunkirk’s the best summer film to date -- because it undoubtedly is -- but whether or not this is Nolan’s finest work on a resume that has no major blemishes. I would argue this is definitely Nolan’s best film because this is a technical Nolan at his technical best, and his expertise shines through in every single aspect of the film, most notably in using the rule of thirds in both plot structure and developing tension between characters.

James D'Arcy and Kenneth Branagh as officers overseeing the evacuation.

James D'Arcy and Kenneth Branagh as officers overseeing the evacuation.

It’s not the first time Nolan has abided by the rule of three: Memento actually has three timelines, there are three parts to the magic trick in The Prestige, and Harvey Dent is the compelling third wheel between good and evil in The Dark Knight. There’s just something about threes that seems so perfect (omne trium perfectum), be it “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” or The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. When a third element is added to a two-character relationship it has an exponential effect, where suddenly the number of relationships to explore increases from two to six.

The most obvious use of thirds in Dunkirk is its plot, which is divided into three separate stories (land, sea, and air) at three different points (one day, one week, one hour) of the historic evacuation. Nolan is a master of meshing all sorts of different things and building everything up to a singular moment when it all comes together, but what separates him from the pack is that he always allows his audience to connect the puzzle pieces.

The pace is excellent as Nolan takes them on a taut, claustrophobic journey, but also gives the characters room to breathe and develop as the film approaches its pivotal moment, dropping subtle visual cues every now and then. It begins with a “wait, wasn’t that…?” and builds up the tension until a soft “oh!” -- the inevitable gasp of realization that comes when Nolan’s vision and story becomes crystal clear. It’s helped along by Hans Zimmer’s brilliant score, and the staccato ticking of a clock and violin strings helps build up the tension until it inevitably bursts. The cinematography is a feast, and it’s as weird to say as it is amazing that Hoyte van Hoytema seems to be only cinematographer who can routinely bring out the “texture” of the film’s characters, costumes, and settings that’s dominated by drab blues, greys, browns, and blacks.

Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson.

Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson.

The rule of three also applies to the characters and the tension each of them provide to help heighten the film’s senses. On land, young British private Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) becomes a loyal ally to another stranded British soldier, Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), as they try to find a spot for themselves on the evacuation boats, but end up at odds against one another when a third soldier, Alex (Harry Styles), confronts them with a life-or-death situation. At sea, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his father, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), try to uphold their sense of duty after they’re challenged by a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) who refuses to take any further part in the war. And in the air, RAF pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) engage in a breathtaking dogfight with Luftwaffe aircraft while attempting to provide air support for the stranded soldiers.

Dunkirk was a 25-year project for Nolan, who first conceived the idea on a sailing trip across the English Channel, and admitted that it wasn’t a film that he could do right away. His patience has paid off, and he’s delivered a film that accomplishes what it’s supposed to do; it thrills and moves its audience in a way that is totally unexpected, and if the success of a film is to be judged solely by that premise, then he’s certainly reached a new pinnacle.  

Now, the question begs: is Dunkirk one of the best war movies ever? It certainly conveys all the emotions, suspense, and dread of war. But more importantly, it manages to do all this without making a big show. War films in the past seem to be always beholden to long running times, feats of superhuman strength, and blood that just flows and flows, which is more comment than criticism, but Nolan veers completely in a different direction and produces something that feels just as spectacular as the most memorable ones.  

Dunkirk gets four stars out of four.