With Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan gets the opportunity to play to his strengths. This historical drama is taut, relentless and full of complex struggles. And in a surprising move, it’s lean. The last time we saw a Nolan feature under 2 hours and 28 minutes it was 2006, and the picture was The Prestige.
Now, with Dunkirk, he returns to his efficient roots, clocking in at 2 hours, and not a moment more. Of course, given the intensity, the journey might feel rather longer, but the victory here is that the story never loses momentum nor starts to grate. Dunkirk is beautifully shot and brought to life with precision. The cast rallies around the heady story to bring the quiet reserve and heroism of the British soldiers and citizens who achieved what seemed impossible at Dunkirk in the early days of World War II.
It is the timeline of this incredible event that proves the most challenging element of the film. Nolan elects to show us stories from the soldiers on the beach (a one week duration), the civilians who came in boats (a one day timeline) and the airmen who came to aid both groups (a one hour timeline). It’s a triumphant means to show the breadth of the conflict — 400,000 men trapped, surrounded by enemies, with no path home. Unfortunately, Nolan chooses to address the uneven timelines in the triptych by chopping all of the action up and assembling it non-chronologically. It feels less like a choice than the only option after being written into a corner, and it adds a layer of complexity to the story that doesn’t have any payoff. 400,000 lives on the line was quite enough tension, and showing us the same moment from multiple vantages gets taxing when it becomes clear the tactic doesn’t bring anything new to the party.
As it is, Dunkirk is quite a good movie, maybe even a great one, but it’s frustrating to think what it might have been as a crisp, direct vision rather than another foray into Nolan’s fascination with time. Still, there are moments in this picture of undeniable power, and most of them come courtesy of Mark Rylance, though it’s Tom Hardy who claims the most heroic moment. And the most wonderful thing about Dunkirk? The understated love letter it sends to the British state of being. At one point soldiers piling into a ship, desperate to escape are treated to tea and toast while they await departure. When the civilian boats arrive to fulfill their mission, the waiting soldiers explode with joy, and the civilian captains give gentle nods and waves, taking everything, even war heroism in stride. These quiet moments, for this author at least, are even greater highlights than the spectacular dogfights — but Tom Hardy flying out of the sun to chase down the enemy peppering his comrades with bullets is pretty great too.