In 20 years of filmmaking, Christopher Nolan has ascended from indie unknown to the crown prince of PG-13 darkness. Stars still matter in the age of the never-ending franchise, but Nolan remains one of our few brand-name directors, a behind-the-camera presence who can be counted on to sell tickets. To his credit, it’s a responsibility that Nolan takes very, very seriously; to his discredit, what doesn’t he take very, very seriously? Over the last decade, especially, Nolan has become low-hanging fruit for mockery—his heaviness, his humorlessness, his ponderousness, his duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-BWAAAAMP-ness.
But just when the diminishing returns of The Dark Knight franchise and the philosophical emptiness of Interstellar seemed to cement his irrelevance, along comes Dunkirk to remind us what Nolan does so well. Nolan is a master of escalating and sustaining tension across multiple dramatic planes, and the outwardly simple yet slightly fractured structure of Dunkirk affords him the ideal canvas to practice his art. You’re stuck in Nolan’s grasp within minutes, and he only keeps squeezing tighter, the pinprick tension growing more unbearable, with the phony dramatic crescendos kept to a relative minimum.
Dunkirk breaks the infamous 1940 evacuation of several hundred thousand stranded Allied troops into three narrative shards: one view from the beach, as baby-faced soldiers (Fionn Whitehead and Damien Bonnard) scheme to escape certain death by any means necessary; one view from the sea, as a civilian boat skippered by Mark Rylance sails across the channel; and one view from the sky, as two fighter pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) provide scrappy air support. While the rescuers stream toward the billow of black smoke on the horizon, German planes easily pick off the men and machines at Dunkirk.
Nolan does himself a favor with his own terse script, largely laying off the blockhead exposition and instead crafting a fingernail-obliterating cinema experience. Dunkirk relentlessly rubbernecks from the beach to the sea to the air, but Nolan undermines any potential monotony by gently fragmenting and overlapping the timelines. The film is viscerally immersive without feeling exploitative, and there are even a few quiet moments of visual poetry stashed amid the luxury lounger-rattling explosions, a rarity for a director who tends to thrive in an environment of laboratory-controlled violence and chaos.
As ever, Nolan mostly fumbles his attempts at warmth, and after largely avoiding awards-grubbing moments in Dunkirk, the last few minutes play a little too much like an acceptance speech. An unfortunate side effect of Nolan’s shimmy into the mainstream are the obligatory rays of hope that now pollute his pitch-black paranoia and moral gray zones. His weighty and enveloping seriousness, while often risible when applied to caped crusaders or Matthew McConaughey, is at least believable—I buy Nolan the grim misanthropist a lot more than I buy Nolan the moist-eyed patriot.
Thankfully, false moments are few and far between in Dunkirk, a film that almost manages to make Christopher Nolan great again.