War is a flat circle in Dunkirk, writer/director Christopher Nolan's hypnotic account of the evacuation of 300,000 soldiers from the title commune in northern France over the course of nine days. This isn't so much a dramatization as three vignettes, playing out in tandem but at separate points prior to the event, in which Allied forces attempt to avoid the Axis forces while holed up in an open and vulnerable position along the French shoreline, waiting for warships that seem unlikely ever to make it to them without suffering defeat. The happy(ish) ending to the story - that far less than half of the Allied forces died and a good majority made it home safely - removes none of the considerable tension.
We never see the faces of the Axis (in this case, German) forces on the other side of the battle, apart from a pair in the background of one shot near the end. This heightens the threat they pose, which evolves into something entropic, looming overhead always - sometimes literally, sometimes as such an existential threat that a few characters look up preemptively when there is nothing to see. The opening sequence, in which one of the subjects of one of those vignettes takes sniper fire on a street littered with pamphlet propaganda, sets the stage for the kind of immediacy with which we are dealing here.
Nolan surrounds the character with the impact of bullets, and in a sense, the director surrounds his audience with it, too. The sound design, combined with Hans Zimmer's pulsating score (somewhere deep beneath which is the ticking of a stopwatch), works to elevate the sense of unreality within the sequences of aerial, aquatic, and land-based warfare. That first vignette, titled "The Mole," finds the young soldier (played by Fionn Whitehead) at its center fleeing from enemy fire straight into a concerted effort to evacuate the Dunkirk beach, where he meets another soldier (played by Aneurin Bernard) and helps to rescue a third (played by Harry Styles).
These soldiers, surely, have names. We might even learn them along the way, although there is little room for dialogue. When it comes, such as in the handful of conversations between a Navy Commander (played by Kenneth Branagh) and an Army Colonel (played by James D'Arcy), it's tactical or situational. The second vignette, titled "The Sea," finds a father, his son, and the son's friend (played respectively by Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney, and Barry Keoghan) assisting in the war effort to rescue as many soldiers as possible, beginning with a shell-shocked sergeant (played by Cillian Murphy), and the third, titled "The Air," finds a pair of pilots (played by Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) warding off enemy pilots in the sky with slowly depleting fuel.
Nolan, in collaboration with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (who applies a distinctive aesthetic to each vignette) and editor Lee Smith (who intercuts shifting timelines and overlaps events with absurd ease), has achieved something notable with Dunkirk, which is to say that the film examines the war experience through controlled chaos (The "action sequences" are not as broadly entertaining as the phrase is commonly applied) and traumatized faces (The performances work in tandem to capture desperation, horror, and helplessness). The film contains a deep well of emotion, into which the filmmaker taps with mesmerizing results.
Fionn Whitehead (Tommy), Aneurin Barnard (Gibson), Harry Styles (Alex), Kenneth Branagh (Commander Bolton), Mark Rylance (Mr. Dawson), Tom Glynn-Carney (Peter), Barry Keoghan (George), Cillian Murphy (Shivering Soldier), James D'Arcy (Colonel Winnant), Tom Hardy (Farrier), Jack Lowden (Collins).
Directed and written by Christoper Nolan.
Rated PG-13 (intense war experience, language).
Released on July 21, 2017.