With its cast of thousands, its IMAX photography and its nonstop intensity, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” (opening Friday) is a film of breathtaking scope and design, a gargantuan accomplishment in large-screen ambition. Dramatizing the three-pronged efforts—by air, sea and land—to rescue some 400,000 Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk during the early stages of World War II, Nolan’s movie is an experiential distillation of the director’s epic style, unshackled by traditional storytelling concerns. Imagine something like the opening 27 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan” stretched to feature length, and you’re getting there.
Nolan’s choice of 65mm film stock results in a clarity of composition and a depth of field rarely achieved, or even attempted, in movie history. Its majestic aerial images of 6,000 ant-sized troops hark all the way back to Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epics, and its marvelous tracking shots are Kubrickian in their execution.
Like needles in a war-torn haystack, Nolan burrows down on a few rugged faces—both the evacuees and their rescuers—who serve as synecdoches for the enormity of the event. These include the newly discovered Fionn Whitehead as a British Army private who smuggles his way onto a Navy evacuation destroyer, Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy as Royal Air Force pilots, and Mark Rylance as a stoic mariner captaining a requisitioned yacht with his brave sons.
Kenneth Branagh and Cillian Murphy appear in supporting roles as well, but “Dunkirk” is decidedly not a star vehicle, and dialogue is scant. Technical virtuosity surpasses character development. Nolan’s camera juggles multiple crises like they’re flaming torches, a technique familiar to fans of his “Inception,” with its patchwork of intercut dream layers. “Dunkirk” is just as dexterous in its editing rhythms; the Academy might as well announce that award today. It’s accompanied by an equally impressive, singularly unnerving Hans Zimmer score that balances moody bombast with violent violin solos and the perpetual ticks of a stopwatch.
Despite its bounteous formal wonders, “Dunkirk” is not entirely successful at generating audience engagement for these hardscrabble characters: When people are scripted in two dimensions, it’s hard to connect with them on an emotional level. Its relentlessness is another hurdle. As an accounting of seemingly insurmountable miseries, there is only so much bombardment we can be expected to stomach, and “Dunkirk” brushes against its limit.
Yet as it crashes, chugs and barrels toward its conclusion, the movie ends up touching the heart more than you might expect. Lessons in compassion, patience, forgiveness and perseverance are conveyed gracefully, with a characteristic dearth of words. With images this stunning, I guess you don’t need them.