With ‘Dunkirk,’ Christopher Nolan Proves He’s Blockbuster Cinema’s Most Daring Auteur

Nolan’s gigantic-canvas retelling of the efforts to save 400,000 British soldiers confirms his status as American cinema’s most experimental blockbuster auteur.

Christopher Nolan has never been your typical mainstream filmmaker. Be it the backwards-forwards narrative structure of his 2000 breakthrough Memento, the grim socio-politically oriented Dark Knight trilogy, or the dreams-within-dreams logic of Inception, the British-born director has spent his career pushing the boundaries of what large-scale Hollywood enterprises can achieve, all while nonetheless making sure his audacious efforts still deliver the popcorn goods. That process has now reached its apex with Dunkirk, Nolan’s gigantic-canvas retelling of the efforts to save 400,000 British soldiers trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, in 1940 during World War II. Arguably his finest to date, it’s a wartime saga of rousing sensory and emotional power, and it continues his fascination with reconfiguring the way such movies can, and should, operate. It is, in short, a multimillion-dollar art film—and one that confirms his status as American cinema’s most experimental blockbuster auteur.

In virtually every respect, Dunkirk refracts conventions through Nolan’s highly particular lens, along the way crystalizing some of his favorite devices and dispatching with some of his worst tendencies. In the latter case, that’s most apparent when it comes to dialogue. Unlike his usual exposition-filled screenplays—which crescendoed with Batman Begins’ endless utterance of the word “fear,” and tipped over the edge with Inception’s instruction manual-grade chitchat—the director’s latest is a curt, minimalist affair. Gone are the tutorial speeches, as well as even the faintest tidbits of background material, save for some opening title cards that lay out his basic surrounded-on-all-sides scenario. Nolan thrusts viewers into the midst of the bedlam with little preparation, allowing them to get their bearings from the moment-to-moment incidents being witnessed up-close-and-personal. And he refuses to provide anything more than outlines for his characters, who are demarcated not by backstory (they have virtually none) or banter (they’re mostly silent, especially in the case of Fionn Whitehead’s young “protagonist,” Tommy) but by action. It’s storytelling boiled down to its barest bones, almost to the point of abstraction.

Abstraction is present throughout Dunkirk, whose glimpses of wartime carnage and chaos, bravery and sacrifice, selfishness and cowardice come via vignettes that are shot in extreme, piercing close-ups, and are devoid of substantial context. Nolan eschews any discussion of the larger wartime effort taking place beyond the crisis at Dunkirk; in spiritual kinship with his more sci-fi-ish Inception and Interstellar, the film often feels as if it’s set on some barren, foam-whipped stretch of alien terrain (when, that is, it’s not literally residing in the clouds). In this hostile environment, the director focuses on a handful of harried military men: Whitehead’s frantic private, and Kenneth Branagh’s gravely concerned commander, on the beach; Tom Hardy’s ace fighter pilot in the sky; and Mark Rylance’s civilian boatman on the sea. They’re men charged with carrying out their given duty, and left at that—an about-face from his prior works, Nolan avoids saddling them with complicated psychological baggage (i.e., no dead wives!) that might explain why they’re doing what they’re doing, or why their efforts are fated to succeed or fail. They’re merely a handful of the countless individuals suffering this nightmare—random spokes on a wheel spinning furiously out of control.

Nolan’s formal experimentation extends to his film’s trifurcated structure. On land, Whitehead and Branagh struggle to figure out how to get themselves (and their thousands of comrades) off the beach. On sea, Rylance and his two sons chart a rescue-mission course for Dunkirk in their civilian craft. And in the air, Hardy and two wingmen engage in dogfights with the enemy. As if splitting his story in three weren’t enough, however, Nolan also fractures time as well—the land sequence takes place over the course of a week; the sea, a day; the air, an hour. Then, the director crosscuts between them in one streamlined, propulsive narrative, until the three finally meet, crashing into each other with a forcefulness to match the concussive bombs being dropped from above on British warships. It’s a traditional tale splintered into shards, the better to create an intrinsic relationship between the epic and the intimate, and to highlight how survival is a byproduct of not only man’s deeds, but of fate and luck as well.

This design is the culmination of the chronological schemes Nolan previously employed in Memento, The Prestige, Inception, and Interstellar. Here, though, the stripped-down quality of the proceedings—putting an emphasis on you-are-there sights of drowning bodies, sinking ships, and heavily banking airplanes in combat, the attendant roar of battle and screams of dying men, and a score of anxious strings and slow, ominous horns—gives his tactic an added intensity. Moreover, it’s no mere stunt; Dunkirk’s construction serves as a canny means of conveying both a sweeping overview and personal snapshot of the evacuation’s various facets. It intertwines the macro and the micro to express the way in which war is simultaneously a large- and small-scale affair, carried out by millions of anonymous faces on expansive stretches of land, their every clash and crisis both intensely immediate to them, and yet merely a speck upon a far more sprawling, chaotic canvas.

To a greater extent than ever before, Nolan plays with space, time, character and narrative standards with Dunkirk in order to craft an inherently experiential film, one that situates its viewers in its sound-and-fury via purely aesthetic means. Thus, it’s ideal that one sees Dunkirk in its Nolan-preferred format—70mm or, better still, 70mm IMAX, in which the director’s spectacle is awe-inspiringly overwhelming. Here too, Nolan proves himself a daring artist, employing technology that’s at once classical (70mm) and cutting-edge (IMAX) to beget a uniquely immersive moviegoing experience, one that’s marked by forward-thinking inventiveness, even as it harkens back to the days of Cinerama and its engulfed-by-the-screen grandeur. That he also seamlessly marries CGI with all manner of practical effects only further enhances his material’s old/new world nature, leaving it feeling like the rare big-screen extravaganza that genuinely straddles the line between the past and the future.

In that way, Dunkirk’s spiritual heirs are not merely his own films, but larger-than-life classics such as 2001 and The Thin Red Line, two other masterworks whose form—notable faces in archetypal roles; sequences of pure aesthetic majesty; self-contained narratives that speak to the larger universe in which they exist—defines their content. It’s a conceptual assault of thunderous intensity and emotion whose impact comes, first and foremost, from its bold unconventionality. Consequently, it solidifies Nolan’s position as Hollywood’s biggest blockbuster risk-taker—an artist who, like the many greats who came before, uses popular genres as vehicles for audacious experiments aimed at expanding the limits of what cinema can do, and be.