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.

Apart from a handful of Luftwaffe planes, there aren’t even any Nazis, merely the knowledge that their artillery lies over the hills and their U-boats prowl beneath the waves. They are less an enemy than an existential threat, and at times Dunkirk feels less like a war film than a disaster movie. Except for the aerial dogfights, there is no “fighting,” and certainly no “winning.” There is simply not dying.

Nolan’s three stories take place on land, on sea, and in the air, and although they are intercut with surgical precision, they take place over three separate but overlapping spans of time. Over the course of a week, a young British soldier (Fionn Whitehead) makes his way to the beach at Dunkirk, there to wait with the masses of his fellows for a rescue that may or may not arrive. Over the course of a day, a British civilian (Mark Rylance) and two teenagers pilot his small wooden yacht across the Channel to save whomever they can. And over the course of an hour, an RAF Spitfire pilot (Tom Hardy) tussles with the Luftwaffe in the skies, trying to protect the men below. Occasionally these narratives intersect, but more often they merely offer alternative vantages, a Rashomon in which the separate tales are intended to enrich rather than confound one another.

I hesitate to write more about the plot (or plots), in part because “plot” seems almost an improper descriptive term. These are shards of story, at once intimate and clinical. There are moments of harrowing intensity and of profound humanity. Some men live, some die. There is not a great deal of time devoted to their individual characters and motivations, in part because in the latter case they aren’t particularly individual at all: The motivation is to survive. Whether it is to return home to wives or sweethearts or an empty flat is beside the point.

Rylance telegraphs human decency in that customarily exquisite Rylance manner, even when things go terribly wrong with a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) he has rescued from the waves. Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy display stoic concern as, respectively, the senior naval and army officers on “the mole,” a heavy breakwater jutting into the sea and repurposed to function as a makeshift dock. And, along with Whitehead, relative acting unknowns Jack Lowden, Aneurin Barnard, and Harry Styles (whom Nolan was reportedly unaware was a member of One Direction when he cast him) capture the youth and essential interchangeability of the frightened troops.

To top it off with an inside joke, Hardy’s pilot’s face is covered by goggles and a flight mask, marking the third time in five years (following Mad Max: Fury Road and Nolan’s own The Dark Knight Rises) that he has had to act with his face largely obscured. Not that there is ever any doubt about the owner of those large, evocative eyes.

But ultimately Dunkirk belongs to Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, who have crafted the rare film that positively demands to be seen on a large screen. The movie was shot entirely on large-format film (75 percent of it IMAX) and it is being released in 70-mm projection in a remarkable 125 theaters across the country. As George Miller did two years ago with Fury Road, Nolan has made the film using practical effects rather than CGI whenever possible—he even spent $5 million on a vintage Luftwaffe plane in order to crash it—and the difference is palpable. Rarely has the beauty of aerial flight (or the unpleasantness of its failure) been captured so vividly.

The Battle of Dunkirk has always been that most remarkable of war stories: an utter rout reframed—and rightly so—as an iconic victory. At the end of Nolan’s film, when one of the returning men is congratulated, he muses, “All we did is survive.” The reply: “That’s enough.” But it was much more than that. Had those Allied troops not been saved, the history of the war would have been vastly different. And it is hard to imagine a better tribute to this victory of survival than Nolan’s spare, stunning, extraordinarily ambitious film.