Review: Nolan's raw, horrific 'Dunkirk' is the best war movie in years

In all its raw horror, 'Dunkirk' is one of the best war movies in years.

In all its raw horror, 'Dunkirk' is one of the best war movies in years. Melinda Sue Gordon

American students are taught very little, if anything, about the Battle of Dunkirk in their history classes. That’s a shame given its significance in World War II lore.

What seemed like certain slaughter for hundreds of thousands of British soldiers at the hands of advancing Nazi forces was circumvented by the most unlikely of means. With Dunkirk, writer-director Christopher Nolan takes us to the legendary beach, highlighting the brutality preceding the miracle escape.

The movie fictionalizes a few different main characters, telling their interconnected stories in a nonlinear format:

1. A young British private (Fionn Whitehead) tries to escape Dunkirk by any means possible—pretending to be a medic, sneaking aboard a departing ship, hiding in an abandoned ship, whatever he can muster.

2. A couple of Royal Air Force pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) circle Dunkirk, taking down Nazi bombers via Spitfires.

3. An old man (Mark Rylance) ventures toward Dunkirk to help evacuate the beach and encounters a soldier (Cillian Murphy) stuck out at sea.

It’s been said that war is hell, and Christopher Nolan makes us feel as though we’re literally in the underworld. His film communicates, as well as any movie could, the horror and anxiety these men must have felt standing unprotected on this tremendous beach as German planes dropped bombs and fired bullets over and over.

The movie takes on an existential vibe, something akin to No Exit or Godard’s Weekend, as every time our protagonists try to escape, a ship sinks, or a bomb or a bullet makes their return another fight for survival, and back they go to Dunkirk.

There is no glorification here, only nightmares. Three stories from three different vantage points: land, sea, and air. A desolate beach. A sprawling channel. An open sky.

Here, Dunkirk even looks like hell. Director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography captures the vastness and isolation of the beach, which ordinarily would relate some sense of freedom, but in this moment conveys only a heightened sense of danger from every angle.

Hans Zimmer is back with another commanding score, leveraging continuous sound to raise the stakes, to toy with our senses, and keep us in a constant state of alert.

Dunkirk is a movie that masterfully encapsulates the dread of those nine horrifying days in France. Everything feels so intense that the movie hurtles along, never letting you take your eyes off the screen.

This is a full-body experience: Nolan’s direction is so unrelenting that we find ourselves tensed for the entirety, the movie jumping between the storylines at their most amplified points. When the credits roll, there’s almost a sense of relief that the strain has come to an end, along with the satisfaction of having seen a powerful film.

Of course, this is all to be expected from Christopher Nolan. He’s one of the greatest directors in the world, and it’s no surprise that he’s made one of the best war movies in years.

Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard 
Rated: R
Theater: Now playing, area theaters

Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated that Royal Air Force pilots were "taking down Nazi bombers and Spitfires." The phrase should read "taking down Nazi bombers via Spitfires." The text has been changed to reflect that.