Dunkirk in 1940 is not a place a British soldier wants to be, and Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) knows that all too well as he has lost every other person in his group, having escaped the Nazi gunfire in the streets when his friends were shot down. He makes it to a wall of sandbags where the local troops are trying to hold back the tide of Germans, and through them to the beach where he hopes, as hundreds of thousands of others do, for rescue. Wandering the beach, he encounters a solider (Damien Bonnard) who seems to be burying a dead man in the sand, and though they do not speak with each other, there is an unspoken agreement to look out for one another. But the Nazis are restless...
Director and screenwriter Christopher Nolan saw his account of the famed victory snatched from the jaws of defeat become the hit of the summer of 2017, largely thanks to there being very little else of any great quality released at that time of that year, in Britain especially there was very little to choose from as would-be blockbuster after would-be blockbuster underwhelmed at the box office. It became the film to see that season, the film to have an opinion on even if you did not enjoy it, and every amateur historian was keen to measure it up against the facts of the event as they understood them, while the younger audience was keen to see pop star Harry Styles in his first dramatic role and how he carried himself.
Nolan peppered his cast with famous faces, some more recognisable than others (Tom Hardy was difficult to spot unless you knew to look out for him), but the bulk of the performances rested on the unknowns, a device to render the soldiers more anonymous in that you weren't sitting there expecting movie stars to shine in a manner all too familiar from other major productions, many of which this director had been at the helm of. The effect of this was either to allow the viewer to lose themselves in the story, broken up in typical Nolan playing with time fashion over the course of an hour and three quarters, or in the other reaction, be entirely alienated and write the film off as something they refused to engage with when it was not doing the same for them.
Nevertheless, enough audiences responded to how vividly Nolan portrayed what war would have been like to be on the ground (or in the sea, in cases here), with all the confusion and terror that involved. The main theme was not so much the triumph the operation represented, when a fleet of civilian boats were pressed into service to rescue the soldiers from the Dunkirk beach as the Nazi bombers did their best to prevent them, but more what it was like to know someone wanted to kill you, someone you did not know and could not understand what had made them so murderous other than some vague notion of duty. This impersonal justification for the slaughter was arguably the most chilling element, as the soldiers we see, none of them German, are constantly victimised by the bullets and bombs when all they want is the peace of home.
That was the strongest aspect, bolstered by some very fine cinematography capturing what was filmed with a surprising lack of CGI, Nolan preferring to shoot as realistically as possible (which did make a difference), and Hans Zimmer's near-constant score, making its way from unease to horror to finally a variation on Elgar to represent the pride Britain took in managing to save so many souls and guarantee the Second World War would not be a Nazi walkover. However, where Dunkirk fell down was in its tries at bringing home the human cost, as Nolan invented a selection of composite and fictional characters who did not really ring true and smacked of plot contrivance, none more than the boy who becomes a hero by accident in a literal accident that knocks him cold; these bits were simply too convenient, and while there was plenty of research involved, taking inspiration from a few real life biographies instead of relying on invention would have been preferable. That and the final dedication misusing the word "impacted" in popular slang were regrettable and undercut the project's good intentions and other qualities, which were otherwise worthwhile.
British director specialising in dark thrillers. Made an impressive debut with the low-budget Following, but it was the time-twisting noir Memento that brought him to Hollywood's attention. 2002's Al Pacino-starrer Insomnia was a remake of a Norwegian thriller, while Batman Begins was one of 2005's biggest summer movies. The hits kept coming with magician tale The Prestige, and Batman sequel The Dark Knight was the most successful movie of Nolan's career, which he followed with ambitious sci-fi Inception and the final entry of his Batman trilogy The Dark Knight Rises. He then attempted to go as far as he could with sci-fi epic Interstellar, another huge success at the box office, which was followed by his World War II blockbuster Dunkirk and mindbending sci-fi Tenet, bravely (or foolishly) released during the pandemic.