What is Dunkirk?
The answer is more complicated than one might imagine. Director Christopher Nolan’s latest is a war film, of course, yet one in which the enemy scarcely makes an appearance. It is a $150 million epic, yet also as lean and spare as a haiku, three brief, almost wordless strands of narrative woven together in a mere 106 minutes of running time. It is classic in its themes—honor, duty, the horror of war—yet simultaneously Nolan’s most radical experiment since Memento. And for all these reasons, it is a masterpiece.
The historical moment captured by the film ascended long ago to the level of martial lore: In May 1940, in the early days of World War II, some 400,000 British and Allied troops were flanked and entrapped by Germany on the beaches of Dunkirk in northern France. Although the Channel was narrow enough that the men could almost see across to England, the waters were too shallow for warships to approach the beaches. So a flotilla of some 700 civilian craft—the “Little Ships of Dunkirk”—made their way from Ramsgate in England to assist in the rescue.
When it was announced that Nolan intended to make a film about the evacuation, it was easy to anticipate a kind of Saving Private Ryan in reverse, departing rather than landing upon a French beach. In classic war epic form, there would be the buildup and laying out of context, the unfurling of backstories, the explanation of geography, the rolling waves of sentiment, the tectonic running time. Instead, Nolan has stripped his film bare of such trappings. There are no generals making plans around tables, no loved ones worrying back home, no Winston Churchill. Just the men and the beach and the sea and the sky.