You might already know how the May 1940 evacuation of France’s Dunkirk turned out: More than 300,000 troops, mainly British ones, escaped from the beach while being bombarded by the Nazis. But the power of Christopher Nolan’s harrowing, unusual dramatic re-creation is that it tries—with real success—not to make any of this feel like just another war movie. Instead there’s an uneasy sense of a bloody, strange event unfolding in that unknowable way that those on the ground might have experienced it. Dunkirk is awe-inspiring and alienating, as it should be.
At less than two hours (brief for the director of the epic Dark Knight films), with dialogue kept to a bare minimum, Dunkirk provides a short, sharp dose of the oddness and horror of war, dropping us right into the fray. It’s a staggering feat of immersive terror, blessed with such knockout cinematography that the movie demands to be seen on as massive a screen as possible (Nolan has shot the film in two large-frame formats, IMAX and 65mm). It looks, feels and sounds like a nightmare, balancing naked suffering (drowning, shooting, crashing, burning) with a hint of unearthliness: Nazi propaganda leaflets spookily dropping from the sky; strange foam washing up on the sand; dislocating aerial shots of sea meeting land.
Nolan divides events into three interlocking chapters, offering a trio of perspectives. One segment, “The Mole, One Week,” takes place on the harbor wall from which thousands were rescued and where we see a comm