With “Dunkirk,” writer-director Christopher Nolan, most famous for his Batman trilogy but even better at mind-benders like “Memento” and “Inception,” applies his cerebral skillset to another familiar genre: the World War II movie. Rather than turn the true story into a puzzle, Nolan keeps the plot simple and delivers an intense, carefully calibrated mini-epic about surviving war. But he puts his own spin on it, too, breaking the story into three separate overlapping narratives. It is every inch a Christopher Nolan War Movie.
The situation, as you no doubt recall from history class or from falling asleep watching The History Channel, is this. It’s late May 1940, and nearly 400,000 British and French troops are trapped by the Germans on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, waiting to be evacuated. But the massive ships that can carry many soldiers are too heavy to get close to shore (or too heavy to leave again once they do, I suppose), so the anxious troops must wait several days for a flotilla of smaller boats, in the meantime almost defenseless against the German dive-bombers that come around now and then to shoot them like fish in a barrel.
Onscreen titles tell us the film’s structure. Part 1, set on the beach (or the “mole,” referring to the stone piers that form the harbor), occupies a week of time. Part 2, set on the sea and following the efforts of a British civilian named Dawson (Mark Rylance) to sail his yacht across the English Channel to assist in the evacuation, takes place on the last day of that week. Part 3, with Royal Air Force pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) coming in to provide cover, spans an hour of that last day. So it’s only the last bit of the story where all three converge, but Nolan, with his God-like view of time, alternates between sections as if they were happening simultaneously. The benefit of this is that it lets the people in Parts 2 and 3 be major characters in the film, not just saviors who arrive in the last few minutes.
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B+ (1 hr., 46 min.; )