War has never looked like this before.
When news broke that Christopher Nolan had chosen a World War Two epic as his next project it was hard not to feel cynical.
After all, with one of the best, most lucrative careers in the business - becoming in recent years, one of the highest grossing directors in history - that stupid, but oh-so-significant moment of true glory has somehow eluded Nolan: an Oscar.
Of course not everyone wants to win one, but with the announcement that the Batman director had decided to eschew his tricksy genre fare for a war epic, the news carried shades of Oscar bait a la Kate Winslet. Why else would the guy who made Inception suddenly decide to tell the story of the disastrous evacuation of hundreds of thousands of British soldiers from a French beach during the early stages of the war?
Thankfully though, whatever ulterior motives Nolan may have, Dunkirk has allowed him to break free from the over-complicated, over-long and ~let's be honest~ overly-corny spate of films he has become known for to create something genuinely great and shockingly simple.
Ok, not too simple.
Divided between land, sea and air and taking place over a week, a day and an hour respectively, the film is divided into three timelines which play out simultaneously - and yes, initially, it’s confusing.
Stuck on the French beach for a week, a young group of soldiers attempt survival and escape; travelling from English shores a small civilian boat spends a day drawing ever closer to the chaos in the distance; and in the sky Tom Hardy and Jack Lowdon spend an hour firing endless rounds from Spitfires at enemy aircraft. Each of these timelines moves at its own pace to gradually converge at the same point in space and time - the moment of rescue on the beach where the stranded soldiers wait.
It would be easy to write this narrative muddling off as the last vestige of Nolan schtick to survive in Dunkirk. Memento, Inception and Interstellar all hinge their cleverness on twisty, atemporal narratives, and to say it's getting gimmicky would be an understatement. Think of his brother’s work in Westworld and you’ll wonder why anyone would let a Nolan play with narrative time again.
For an otherwise no-nonsense historical movie like Dunkirk though, the rejection of linearity - and the meaning this dictates - has a profound effect on how we make sense of the images we’re seeing.
The most obvious way Nolan does this is to reframe war as cyclical - the threats from above come and go with the same regularity as the rising and falling tides on which the men wait; Spitfires turn circles in the sky felling enemies, only to have more arrive in their place; young men undertake deft and occasionally devious escapes from the beach only to wash back up, dead and alive, hours later.
That beach, shown in expansive, surreal, wide shots and covered in horrible foam comes to feel like a kind of purgatory, a fixed point in the film’s constant shifts in space and time that provides both a liminal place between the death that awaits on either side, but also a kind of hellscape. Images of men walking into the ocean, bodies brought in by the tide, young men - super young men - queuing towards and into the water, waiting for something that seems a long way off. War in Dunkirk is not battles or grand displays of heroics, but rather micro moments of humanity that are, thankfully, for the most part, not moralised for us.
There are of course occasional moments that don’t gel with this. The film’s crescendo, set to the strains of an adaptation of Edward Elgar’s "Nimrod" veers dangerously toward trite and there are maybe a few too many shots of Kenneth Branagh standing teary-eyed on a pier.
Yet, even when he leans into sentimentality, Nolan never seems to completely believe it.
The fragmented, broken timelines, the strange, eerie almost alien images of the beach, and the ghastly wailing sound of planes and bombs and torpedos, drive home that what we are seeing - that what happened, is somehow, inherently wrong.
The hyperreal images, the minimal dialogue and maximised sound effects, and the choices these innocent, traumatised young men have to make, are shocking and even beautiful, but also completely and horrifically surreal.
Even the image of former One Direction member Harry Styles, a figure synonymous with youth, sent to fight is strangely, powerfully moving. Rather than being jarring, his presence is poignant: a reminder of the reality of who the innocent young men we remember distantly as heroes really were.
As important as it is to keep alive the stories of history, war films so often end up distancing audiences from the events they depict, no matter how violent or gritty, or historically accurate they endeavor to be. Somehow, the image of war time and time again becomes opaque and impenetrable, exciting perhaps but no more real or relevant to our lives than a battle scene in Game of Thrones.
Dunkirk is devastating for its immediacy. It’s a period piece but it doesn’t feel like one. The crisp clear cinematography, the bone-chilling sound design, the entirely naturalistic and heartbreakingly endearing performances from young men who, in different circumstances, would be in this position for real.
Perhaps most amazing of all, is how Nolan repurposes his many penchants - disrupted time, troubled hero tropes, even a split second final shot that calls into question the meaning of all that has gone before it (a million times more effective here than that stupid Inception spinning top) - to create more than just his typical moneymaker. In Dunkirk he has a masterpiece. And it might just win him a big bunch of Oscars.