There was a time when I’d have happily insisted that Christopher Nolan was the greatest director working in Hollywood. Then incredible talents like Denis Villeneuve and Park Chan Wook started to show an equal brilliance and consistency and Nolan’s Interstellar didn’t quite land as it could have. I never became any less of a fan but it seemed there were other film makers to get just as excited about. 


Today though I realise how wrong I was to wobble on this point. Dunkirk proves unequivocally that Christopher Nolan is the unchallengeable master at what he does and his war film is a masterpiece. It is better that Spielberg’s Saving Ryan, it is better than Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, it is better than Stone’s Platoon, it is better than Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai and it is better than Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Bold claims I know but to me this is the perfect military movie.


The reason that Dunkirk succeeds over all these other brilliant movies is because it feels like a more pure depiction of war. It isn’t as visceral as other examples of the genre but it is focused less on the stories of those in combat and more on their experiences. There is no pre-enlistment stuff here, no mission briefings or training camps and no shots of the folks back home. Right from the start the audience is dropped in the action and the film stays focused on what is happening on the beach, on the sea and in the skies around Operation Dynamo in 1940. It seems an odd thing to say but it is beautifully unburdened by plot. 


This isn’t to suggest that there is no story but they are small and personal stories; almost anecdotes. It is all fictional but feels authentic and totally respectful of the real people involved in the real historical event. (Unlike the advert for the XBox’s Call of Duty: WWII that played before the film which seemed crass and disrespectful in the extreme, turning war into a game.) Dunkirk starts off following a young infantryman as he retreats, cornered, to the beach and we stay with him and the other men on the ground as they try to get to safety. We also see the heroic efforts of two Spitfire pilots trying to protect those below, the Navy Commander coordinating the evacuation and the crew of one of the small pleasure boats sailing the channel to rescue as many soldiers as they can. Each episode is equally compelling and it all pieces together like a tapestry but each adventure also has its own feel. Mark Rylance’s section surrounding the civilians is inspiring and moving. Kenneth Branagh’s turn in the officers uniform is quietly and calmly heroic. Tom Hardy in flight is thrilling and the events around the cast of unknown, often unnamed, men on the sand is totally gripping. Harry Styles features in this last section but there is no stunt or populist casting here. He is good and it is entirely believable that he auditioned and got the part on his merits. I’m not a One Direction fan in any shape or form but I forgot it was him and isn’t that what any big name actor wants you to do. There’s no vanity in the part either. All the cast are strong and there are performances here from familiar faces and performances that will undoubtedly make people into familiar faces.


Of course this is Christopher Nolan so there is technical brilliance here too. As you might expect from the director of Memento the timeline leaps around and as you knew you’d get from the director of Inception and the Dark Knight Trilogy the effects, shot composition and sound are all wonderfully employed. In the showing I was in each explosion actually made the screen visibly vibrate in concentric circles like the cup of water in Jurassic Park (I don’t think it was part of the film). The music from regular Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer is also great, bringing in strains of Elgar in a way that will almost subliminally rouse a British audience to feelings of patriotism. 


Dunkirk is a powerful film depicting an important historical event that has rarely been the sole subject of movies before. It honours the allied war effort while also highlighting British nationalism in a way that somehow complements and contradicts itself at the same time (I’m not sure how this would have effected Brexit if it had come out early last Summer) but crucially it doesn’t demonise the enemy.


There is no question as to whether or not Dunkirk should be seen at the cinema. Like all of Nolan’s later work this film is made to be seen on the biggest screen possible and with the best sound system. It is possibly less full on than other war films and is generally more restrained, certainly in terms of its depiction of injury (the 12A rating is appropriate) but for all of this it is no less monumental. Be in no doubt, Dunkirk combines the full cinematic paintbox with consummate skill and is evidence of an exceptional artist at the top of his game.


The Ripley Factor?

Rightly or wrongly, historically this was a man’s world. Criticising the film for that would be like criticising Gravity for not passing the Bechdel Test.

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