Dunkirk ★★★★½

There is a classic scene in director Joe Wright's wonderful 2007 film "Atonement". It is an epic five minute long single tracking shot of the scale of what was the Dunkirk evacuation during World War II when hundreds of thousands of British and other allied troops were forced to the sea by the Nazi invasion of France. I love that shot, I love that film, and I have to admit that I brought that emotion - and a whole life as an anglophile - with me to my screening of Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk". In addition to that Dunkirk scene from "Atonement", I brought with me the Dunkirk movie-within-a-movie from recent "Their Finest", popular songs like "The White Cliffs of Dover", the audio recordings of Winston Churchill's stirring wartime speeches, and yeah, all the things that would make me predisposed to be ready for any emotion in any depiction of stranded British soldiers trying to make it home.

I say this, because I think Mr. Nolan's film was elevated by this for me. Yes. I think "Dunkirk" is a fine film on its own, but being amped up, like perhaps Mr. Nolan (a Brit himself) is from a lifetime of Dunkirk lore and history that makes the harrowing experience of these men, and subsequent saving by an unlikely flotilla of civilian boats from across the channel (not a spoiler folks, that is history, like we know the Titanic sinks) part of his DNA.

Anyway, the movie... Mr. Nolan has given us a fine film. Most admirable is that "Dunkirk" is a lean, well-paced, economical, unindulgent (as much as any A-list director's ego will allow) and extremely focused film that makes this epic chapter in history very personal. The story focuses on a few different sets of people, all on their own personal journeys during battle and evacuation.

There are some Nolan-esque touches, like a nonlinear timeline, and a Hans Zimmer score, the latter being more successful than the former. Zimmer's score for much of the movie is percussive and adds to the tension and ambient sounds of war, yet swells where needed to accentuate the needed emotion. This is mostly successful, but the film is so good we didn't need to be told how to feel while watching it. But that is a quibble.

The ensemble cast, including pop star Harry Styles, acquits themselves well.

The bottom line is take away the baggage I brought in, and the hype of critical acclaim and high expectations, and the catalog of the big director, and what we have is a timeless classic story of wartime survival told elegantly for new generations.