Writer/Director Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, is a hell of a war movie — tight structure, understated acting, sparse production design, tremendous sound design that is largely free of dialogue, and masterful cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema.
I don’t know if this is a result of Nolan being an English director telling a story about the British army in World War II, but the movie also feels very distinct and refreshing to me when compared against the typical American mode of heroism depicted in movies about war. This is surely a generalization, but I feel that American audiences have been programmed to expect heroes in war movies who act alone (or in small groups) and who achieve great things by risking everything up to the point of possibly going out in a blaze of glory.
What we don’t typically see in war movies is the bravery and heroism associated with a large group of soldiers — here about 400,000 — working together just to get the hell off the battlefield and regroup. The mission here is sensible, but still harrowing. This army isn’t going into enemy territory or launching an all-or-nothing mission, they are strategically retreating to fight again another day and even that is a complicated and costly undertaking.
While I can’t say Dunkirk is Nolan’s best movie — his more stylistically and philosophically ambitious movies like The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception and even the deeply flawed Interstellar are hard to set aside — I can say it is definitely the most straightforward and successful use of his natural talents as a filmmaker.