‘Dunkirk’ review: Christopher Nolan’s war epic stuns

"Dunkirk," a masterpiece written and directed by Christopher Nolan, tells the story of the evacuation of British forces from continental Europe in 1940, during World War II. Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

You’re cornered, trapped, desperate. You can practically see safety, 26 miles away.

After enduring relentless fire, including repeated strafing by the enemy, you have against all odds made it with dozens of fellow soldiers aboard a transport ship. Nurses are there, offering fresh bread and jam, and mugs of tea.

And then suddenly, a torpedo tears through the English Channel, rips a hole into the boat, and you’re drowning in a sea of chaos, panic and despair, fighting to be one of the very few to breathe again, to seize the promise of life if only for a moment.


That’s the shared experience of the British army privates at the center of “Dunkirk,” Christopher Nolan’s extraordinary new movie about the 1940 battle that culminated in the evacuation of British and Allied forces from continental Europe in the face of a massive Nazi assault.

Seen in its optimal form, in 70mm on an IMAX screen, the movie captures this struggle for survival with visceral intensity. It offers an immersion into this harrowing moment that is vast in its ambition and comprehensive in the degree to which it fulfills it.

Amid enormous blue skies and sweeping views of the sea, “Dunkirk” presents a portrait of sheer and unending brutality that simulates the chaos, confusion and abruptness of violent, bloody warfare to such an extent that the usual boundaries separating an audience from the screen crumble away.

It’s a feature-length montage, expertly assembled to capture every aspect of the evacuation — which is really more like a slaughter, punctuated by moments of quiet. These include the brave-yet-undermanned defense in the air, the mortal fear that defines every second at sea, with enormous ships standing as easy targets for enemy pilots, and the vulnerability on the beach, where the best you can do on a moment’s notice is hit the sand and hope for the best.

Nolan, who also wrote the screenplay, is uninterested in the particulars of military planning save for the necessary background and retains a laser focus on the frontlines.

The only deviation comes in the storyline that stands as the moral center of this movie — following Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) as he sets sail into war with his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his son’s friend (Barry Keoghan), on a journey toward almost-certain doom that could only at best result in the rescue of a handful of the hundreds of thousands trapped in coastal France.

It’s a mission that won’t even make a dent in the overarching story of the fundamental struggle between good and evil that defined the Second World War. No one would have blamed these civilians if they’d stayed home, and no one wins plaudits for this sort of rescue.


And yet, there they are, sharing in the sacrifice, unbending in their mission, a small beacon of hope for humanity at a time of great darkness.