By land, by sea and — especially — by air in ‘Dunkirk’

With a bare minimum of dialogue, and a brutal maximum of scenes depicting near-drowning situations in and around Dunkirk, France, in late May and early June 1940, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is a unique waterboarding of a film experience.

Many will respond to it, primally, as a grueling dramatization of what the English call “the Dunkirk spirit,” one that turned a perilous mass evacuation of British and Allied troops, under German fire (though bad weather kept the Luftwaffe largely at bay), into a show of collective resilience at a crucial early crossroads of World War II.

Operation Dynamo, Winston Churchill called it. Thanks to a series of interlocking lucky breaks (including the decision, probably Hitler’s, to call off the Nazi tanks before they got to Dunkirk), somewhere between 340,000 and 400,000 Allied soldiers, mostly British and French, were rescued from the beach and harbor of the smoldering coastal city.

Nolan’s somewhat perversely structured screenplay tells three stories, also interlocking, laced with flashbacks and revisits to scenes, moments, really, you may not realize are revisits from a new perspective. Nolan lays the groundwork as clearly as possible with title cards, though if you don’t realize “The Mole” refers to an 8-foot-wide pier, you may spend an inordinate amount of viewing time trying to find the spy in the narrative. (Nolan plays on this double meaning, deliberately.)

On land, storyline one, aka “The Mole,” unfolds over a week’s time. The young soldier in British uniform we follow (played by Fionn Whitehead) comes upon the beach, which has filled up with thousands and thousands of British Expeditionary Force fighting men. The Germans are closing in. The young man, our introduction to this place, spies an opportunity for rescue, grabbing a stretcher along with another, nearly mute soldier (Aneurin Barnard) and joining an increasingly desperate fray awaiting naval rescue. What little exposition “Dunkirk” contains is meted out by Kenneth Branagh’s imposing naval commander and James D’Arcy’s army colonel, as they eye the skies for the enemy, and the air support that will not come.

Story two, “The Sea,” takes place in a single day, in its own time signature. This features the superb Mark Rylance as one of the civilian English sailors diving into the rescue effort, by way of a pleasure craft called Moonstone, along with his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a local boy eager to take part in something big (Barry Keoghan, wonderfully cast).

En route these three pick up a stranded survivor (Cillian Murphy), whose ship has been torpedoed. He’s a dangerous wreck of a man, and whenever Nolan and editor Lee Smith cut back to this narrative, “Dunkirk” becomes a tightly wound battle of wills, with Rylance’s taciturn, noble authority figure, gentle and wise, an embodiment of the Dunkirk spirit.

Story three: “The Air,” taking place in a single hour. This is where “Dunkirk” soars, literally, metaphorically and cinematically. Tom Hardy takes the lead here as a Royal Air Force Spitfire pilot, engaged in a dogfight with the German Messerschmitts. How Nolan and company filmed these sequences is inseparable from why they’re effective and frankly gorgeous. Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema filmed “Dunkirk” largely with IMAX cameras, on 65mm film. When our point of view becomes the Spitfire pilot’s POV, the paradoxical contrast between a tightly confined space and cameras designed for the most spacious image possible is something to behold. Plenty of digital effects can be detected, in all three overlapping storylines, but Nolan’s an old-school film wonk, in love (I concur) with the texture and supple pictorial qualities of film.

How do these three story strands intertwine, by land, by sea and by air? It hurts to say it, but not easily. This is why “Dunkirk” ends up a worthwhile frustration, buoyed by some genuine mastery. As powerful and exciting as “Dunkirk” is, at its best, I found the various time strands self-conscious and vexing, and in the context of a fictionalized true story of thousands of lives lost, and hundreds of thousands saved, the structural gimmick feels, well, gimmicky.

Throughout this relatively brief epic (107 minutes), Nolan sets his sights on pure suspense, with one life-or-death escape or predicament piled on whatever’s going on over on story track two or three. The movie takes its cue, right or wrong, from Hans Zimmer’s outlandishly manipulative musical score, all ticking clocks and industrial clanging, working on the audience’s nervous system in the most obvious way. The score’s so bad, it’s virtually guaranteed an Academy Award nomination, and after a while you may find yourself thinking: Where’s my white flag?

Nobody’s going to go to “Dunkirk” for the performances (though the Rylance-led storyline is dominated more plainly by the actors), or for the writing (Nolan has a penchant for movie-sounding clichés, especially when the talk turns to home, with the word itself becoming a leitmotif). They’re going for the visceral impact of a big filmmaker’s ambitious vision. Here flying (i.e., writing) solo, Nolan is once again drawn to narrative labyrinths, as he has been from “Memento” to “The Prestige” to “Inception” to “Interstellar.”

Does Dunkirk, and “Dunkirk,” truly benefit from Nolan’s puzzle fixation? I don’t think so. Many will. This much, certainly, lies above and beyond debate: Compared to the squandered opportunity of the last film shown widely in 70mm, Quentin Tarantino’s hidebound “The Hateful Eight,” Nolan at least creates some images worth seeing on the biggest screen possible.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Movies & TV

Gregg Allman tribute video released on anniversary of his death
Gregg Allman tribute video released on anniversary of his death

The music of Gregg Allman lives on. The Southern rock legend died one year ago on May 27, and to commemorate the anniversary of his passing at age 69, his team compiled a three-minute video that showcases Allman the way he’d want to be remembered – always making music. The clip, set to his 1973 song “Queen of Hearts” from his...
This week’s music picks: The Wine Down, Richard Buckner, more
This week’s music picks: The Wine Down, Richard Buckner, more

[youtube=] Wednesday: The Wine Down series with Sour Notes at 3Ten. The local indie band, whose 2017 album “Darkest Sour” was their fifth release in less than a decade, celebrates is 10th anniversary by playing this seasonal series that...
How to build the ultimate cheese board
How to build the ultimate cheese board

Whoever first decided it was not only acceptable but classy to throw a bunch of cheese bits and snacks on a board deserves credit for simultaneously pulling off what may have been both the greatest scam and invention in the history of entertaining. Sure, you might want to invest in fresh cheese if you're having friends over, but you can pull together...
Webb Report: Whatever happened to Celebration Station?

You don’t forget the first place that banned you from riding the go-carts. Try as you might, it’s the kind of thing that sticks in your craw. After I drove a gas-powered go-cart a little too wildly — out of ineptitude, not recklessness — and slammed into the car in front of me at the finish line as a kid, a ride attendant told...
Olivia Munn discusses Aaron Rodgers’ family issues for the first time
Olivia Munn discusses Aaron Rodgers’ family issues for the first time

Olivia Munn has opened up about ex Aaron Rodgers’ family issues nearly one year after their split. >> Read more trending news  Munn appeared on Sirius XM’s “Andy Cohen Live” and said she only met the NFL Green Bay quarterback’s parents “a couple of times.”  “Before he and I started...
More Stories