Dunkirk is one of the greatest war films ever made and easily Christopher Nolan’s best film. Considering that Nolan directed “The Dark Knight,” my personal favorite action film, this is no small feat. The film closely and accurately follows the historical evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940—Axis soldiers surround the Allied troops as they desperately try to flee from Dunkirk, France to England by sea. A brief opening crawl immediately sets the stakes; there are not enough ships to save everyone and those on the beach wait for impending death from screeching bombs or machine gun fire.
Unlike traditional war films, Dunkirk is rarely about heroism, national pride, and good triumphing over evil. The Allied soldiers fight to escape and survive by any means necessary—retreat is the only possible victory. “Dunkirk” is a horror film and, because of this, represents the terror of war as unpredictably violent and completely illogical in a smartly tense manner.
Without its impeccable execution, “Dunkirk” would have been a dull film about evil Nazis killing sympathetic Allies on a beach. Instead, Nolan deliberately never uses the word “Nazi” or “Axis” in the film. By not demonizing the enemy, “Dunkirk” evokes a haunting metaphorical setting of endless fear—the beach is clouded in fog and blurs all sense of time and space. The soldiers can see across the English Channel, but the gates of hell are open at their backs. The symbolism is never thrown in the audience’s face, but it adds immeasurable depth and intensity.
Despite the subtle symbolism, it is sound that transforms Nolan’s film into a classic. Long time Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer returns with his most bombastic and tense soundtrack yet. Full of ticking clocks, heavy bass, escalating horns, tinny violins, and synth pulses, the music immediately matches the pace of a frantic heartbeat. Adding in random bombings, torpedoes, and automatic gunfire, the sound editing and soundtrack are rife with opportunities for a panic attack. Watching the film in IMAX, I had to remind myself that it was only a movie on multiple occasions.
Of course, this would not be a Christopher Nolan film without some mind-bending time jumps. “Dunkirk” is split into three mostly-concurrent parts: The Mole, The Sea, and The Air. At the heart of the film, The Mole details the plight of soldiers struggling to escape the beach while The Sea follows civilians rushing to rescue the soldiers, and The Air depicts the incredible aerial dogfights taking place above the beach and open sea. By splitting the film into three parts, Nolan is able to jump from one intense scene into the next—for example, the first act transitions from bombing runs in The Mole into dogfighting in The Air. On the other hand, it also allows the film to breathe after particularly intense scenes, with The Sea offering a less violent break. At a lean 107 minutes, the film moves at a rapid clip and jumping between sets of life-threatening scenarios ensures that there is never a dull moment.
The acting in the film is not remarkable in any way, but Tom Hardy, Kenneth Brannagh, Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, and Harry Styles all effectively portray realistic, panicked soldiers. Again, there are no heroes here, only survivors. In that regard, Nolan and his actors unquestionably succeed—“Dunkirk” feels more like a documentary than a Hollywood film, so don’t expect any one-liners or uplifting speeches. For some, this may be a deal breaker, but I greatly enjoyed the break from war movie clichés.
Dunkirk is the best film of the year so far and one of the best war films ever created. Personally, it is in my top 10 favorite films of all time due to its sheer intensity, subject matter, and realism—it makes you feel as if you witnessed the evacuation of Dunkirk firsthand. Ultimately, “Dunkirk” is a riveting military classic that will shock, terrify, and inspire audiences for generations to come.