Dunkirk ★★★★½

On May 26th, 1940, almost half a million Allied troops stood stranded on a grey, chilly beach in the north of France, as the German war machine furiously blitzkrieged its way toward them across the country, and indeed, the entire continent. Only about 20 miles of the English Channel lay between those stranded men and the salvation of their homeland, so close that on a clear day, you can see the white cliffs of Dover from the other side, but for the hundreds of thousands of men waiting on that beach, it might as well have been on another planet. That beach's name? Dunkirk.

Christopher Nolan's film of the same name is the story of the evacuation of those troops, shown from the viewpoints of the men who were on the ground, at sea, and in the air there, showing the event from almost every concievable angle, both military and civillian alike. While such a cinematic undertaking would be more than ambitious enough as is, Nolan goes one step further with Dunkirk, and resharpens his fascination with non-linear storytelling and playing around with our cinematic concept of time, by interweaving together every single story thread and presenting them simultaneously here, meaning that the scenes of an hour-long dogfight with Tom Hardy's low-on-fuel RAF pilot, struggling to protect the troops on the beach below from the enemy planes above, are intercut with the story of the week-long escape of those troops from that beach.

With this unusual structure, Dunkirk compresses the already dramatic event down to its most dramatic moments, basically becoming one long, cinematic climax for 2 hours straight, an experience that could've (should've) became tedious and exhausting very, very quickly, but under Nolan's immersive, skillfully intense direction, it's what is instead what distinguishes and raises up Dunkirk as a war film, lifting it high, high above most of its peers in the often tired, overcrowded genre. For the most part, Nolan avoids the cliche of shoehorning in unnecessary backstory for the characters here, with no scenes of the frontline grunts sitting around and talking about how much they miss their family or their high school sweetheart or their sleepy little town back home, just so the film can act like it did something to make us care about these men just before they inevitably get blown away a minute later.

Instead, the primary method the film connects us with its characters is to simply place us in their boots, sometimes literally, with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema's up close and personal POV perspectives (which contrasts nicely with his epic, aerial MOVIE shots here), and make us feel what they felt waiting for rescue from that ugly, godforsaken beach, and what it must've been like to see the sight of an enemy plane rapidly diving towards your defenseless position, to hear the whir of an incoming shell that may be the last thing you ever hear, to feel the apocalyptic shudder of a ship that's just been torpedoed by an invisible enemy, just before the cold ocean rushes in and cuts every light onboard off, leaving you desperately flailing for a way out, literally drowning in darkness.

It is this intense, personal immersiveness that gives Dunkirk its great cinematic power, and left me constantly feeling as though I was on the verge of having a heart attack right there in the theater (but in a good way, at least, as good as a heart attack can feel). And, while one can criticize this for having certain historical & military inaccuracies, for mostly "Britwashing" the evacuation of the multi-national forces off the beach, or giving in somewhat to a more traditional sentimentality towards the end (a sentimentality that I would argue the film earns through its mostly unglamorous depiction of warfare), all of that pales far, far in comparison to what this gets right. All in all, Dunkirk is one of the purest, most memorable cinematic experiences I've ever had, and as far as I'm concerned, is THE film of the year to date. Thank you, Mr. Nolan, thank you so very, very much.

Final Score: 8.75

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