Dunkirk Is A Terrifying Immersion In The Horrors Of War

Warner Bros.

Thanks to a string of massive commercial successes—including The Dark Knight, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, and Interstellar—director Christopher Nolan has developed the clout and skill to make the kind of wildly ambitious historical epic that Hollywood gave up on years ago. But rather than deliver a creaky, old-fashioned World War II movie full of dreary exposition and too little incident, he has delivered one with the visceral impact of the aforementioned blockbusters—with a crucial difference: Nolan’s latest also carries the resonance of shocking historical events that all really happened (more or less).

At a pivotal moment early in World War II, over 300,000 Allied troops are encircled by German soldiers on a beach in Dunkirk, France. Without the resources they need for a proper evacuation, they find themselves stranded and under attack from all sides. Meanwhile, hundreds of civilian boats struggle to reach the shore to perform an unlikely rescue mission. As dramatized by Nolan, this story is told from three perspectives, each spanning a distinct period of time—a week on the beach, a day on the sea, an hour in the air—and they eventually converge in the film’s explosive finale.

More than anything, Dunkirk offers a shocking sense of what it might actually feel like to be a soldier in World War II. Nolan’s approach is clear from the opening moments. As British troops wander the streets of Dunkirk, unseen gunmen open fire. Rather than offer perfectly framed shots of the attacking Germans, Nolan restricts our perspective to the fragmented sights and deafening sounds experienced by Tommy (Fionn Whitehead). As Nolan sees it, terrifying disorientation is the essence of war, and he accurately conveys that feeling throughout—with an expert sense of menace and suspense.

Watching Dunkirk, you can’t help but ponder its merit relative to earlier war epics and Nolan movies. While the film never quite achieves the profundity of a Full Metal Jacket or The Thin Red Line—an acknowledged influence that similarly focuses on one long battle—and Nolan avoids the up-close brutality of Saving Private Ryan, there’s no question that he has created some of the most unnerving and visceral battle sequences in movie history. For the most part, the British troops are sitting ducks under regular attack, keeping most of the combat relatively one-sided and avoiding the clichéd heroics of so many war movies. Instead, Nolan dramatizes a kind of endless obstacle course—with our characters struggling to survive a barrage of assaults from a faceless enemy that starts to feels like an abstract presence: the destructive essence of war itself.

As for the film’s stature in Nolan’s filmography, there’s no question that this is his most masterfully directed film. Some may take issue with Dunkirk’s daringly restrictive structure, which covers limited space and time, giving us virtually no background about these characters. While this prevents the film from achieving the dramatic sweep of Nolan’s earlier triumphs, it results in something far more original and unsettling. By taking the emphasis off the individual, the group takes on one large identity. As a result, every wound suffered onscreen feels like an injury to thousands of men—and the audience itself, as we share their blinkered perspective. The result is an unprecedented immersion in war, one that may be remembered as Nolan’s masterpiece.

Dunkirk arrives in theatres tomorrow. Preview the gruelling battle ahead in the trailer below: