While no surprise given his track record, Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is impressively ambitious. It is not only an extraordinary spectacle thanks to the extensive use of IMAX cameras (seriously demanding that it be seen on the largest screen possible), but it navigates a smart-yet-challenging non-linear path that plays out in three different threads -- all individually taking place over a different amount of time (specifically a week, a day, and an hour). Clocking in at only 107 minutes long, it's tightly paced, and end-to-end it is furnished with stunning sequences that leave you holding your breath.
It's just a shame that the great writer/director completely forgot to provide the film with any filled-out characters or plot threads that don't simply boil down to "Get British Soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk back to England."
In case you can't tell, Dunkirk is a complex, if not somewhat frustrating cinematic experience. The filmmaker's intentions are very clear -- make the definitive film about the Dunkirk evacuation and attempt to relay every ounce of its intensity -- but in that it plays out more like a star-studded, IMAX-captured recreation than your typical war movie. As such, it makes for an impressive and educating big screen experience that completely sells you on its authenticity, but it also offers no substantial distinctive personalities to whom you can become emotionally attached, or really any larger context or perspective on the events that play out. On the one hand you appreciate the level of respect that it has for its audience by not just spilling out exposition at every possible turn; but you also do miss the basic concepts of storytelling that it shockingly lacks.
A call for more diversity in the cast would be kind of silly given Dunkirk's fidelity to historical accuracy, but it might have actually helped the movie given that the characters actually become legitimately indistinguishable (I'm honestly not completely sure what role is played by One Direction star Harry Styles). Certainly not helping things is that the film doesn't really bother to provide most roles with names, which actually forced me to identify certain recurring faces as "Kid," "Boots" and "Pilot #2." Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, and Kenneth Branagh, as recognizable actors, have an advantage in this regard, but you'll still be deeply challenged to name more than one adjective describing their roles' personalities (a trial that may be made impossible if you take 'Brave' and all its synonyms off the table).
To return to Christopher Nolan's clear intentions, he may not have crafted a feature about the heroes of Dunkirk, but he certainly did capture the hell out of the actual event. While it actually makes the limited non-IMAX scenes look muddled and grainy by comparison, the full 70mm sequences are nothing short of glorious -- particularly as you fly around with Tom Hardy and Pilot #2 shooting down German planes trying to bomb transport ships. Not to be undersold, the film also makes it definitively clear that being a soldier on the ground at this time was a remarkably horrifying experience, and while the terror is somewhat undercut by the PG-13 rating and near complete lack of blood, it still makes it all feel very real. To emphasize an earlier point, it's a film truly designed for 80-foot tall IMAX screens, and anything less is short-selling the movie.
Breaking up the land and sky perspectives where the bulk of the action rests is the angle from the sea -- which is to say the civilian boat captained by Mark Rylance, who, along with his son and his son's friend, are headed to Dunkirk to try and help as many as they possibly can. It's a voyage that includes an encounter with a ship-wrecked, shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy), who begs them to turn back, but they press on. Ultimately it was individuals like these who wound up being some of the greatest heroes during the extended evacuation, and that fortitude is strongly played -- though it's also hard not to look at it and wonder how the writer/director missed the opportunity to really bring these impressive individuals to full light with any sense of who they are beyond what they're doing while they're doing it.
Christopher Nolan's movies have been criticized in the past for a particular emotional coldness, and while Dunkirk will likely do nothing to reverse that reputation, it's still easy to appreciate both the respect he's given to history as well as the spectacle that he's created. It's a gorgeous film shot unlike any war movie we've seen, and Nolan's commitment to and respect for the theatrical experience is rivaled by few -- though without that experience, it will be curious to see how it is treated with time.