For more than a week over the summer of 1940, toward the beginning of World War II, German forces trapped Allied troops - a mix of British, French, Belgian and Dutch - on the beaches of Dunkirk, France. Through naval and civilian vessels, more than 330,000 troops were safely evacuated.
Christopher Nolan's much-anticipated Dunkirk - his first picture since the polarizing Interstellar in 2014 - captures this event in spellbinding fashion. His film is a master class in cinematography, sound and film editing and, while not quite on the level of masterpieces like The Bridge on the River Kwai and Das Boot, is still among the finest World War II pictures to grace the screen.
The proceedings are captured from three perspectives, one on land, one at sea and one up in the air.
On land, you have Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young British private who escapes enemy fire on the streets of Dunkirk and flees to the beach, determined to climb aboard a boat and at last get home. Boat after boat is attacked, including an abandoned ship utilized by the enemies for target practice.
At sea, there is Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance, far more compelling here than in his Oscar-winning Bridge of Spies turn), a kind and calm sailor on a mission with his son and a friend to assist in the evacuation. The trio encounter a battered solider (Cillian Murphy), the sole survivor of a U-Boat attack. Upon realizing the boat is en route to Dunkirk and not home, the soldier grows hostile, to tragic consequences.
Up in the air are a trio of pilots (among them Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) determined to take down German planes and prevent the bombing of allied boats at Dunkirk.
Nolan does a superb job intertwining the three - though the proceedings are very much nonlinear, it's a far more accessible picture than the likes of Memento, Inception and Interstellar, which no doubt left some moviegoers feeling lost at sea.
While the acting is all-around terrific, particularly from Whitehead and Rylance, the lack of character development makes Dunkirk a marginally less emotionally involving film than some past war pictures. Still, that's a slight knock when the movie is so magnificent from a technical perspective. Kudos to Hoyte van Hoytema for his glorious photography, Lee Smith for tight, pitch-perfect film editing and the legendary Hans Zimmer for one of his most intoxicating scores to date.
Is Dunkirk the best Nolan picture? Truth be told, I do prefer both The Dark Knight and Insomnia. That said, it's still one hell of an achievement, a stirring, sweeping picture full of sequences guaranteed to go down as some of the year's best.