Christopher Nolan is an auteur. He's a filmmaker who is as much the star of his films as the actors involved, and that's something of a rarity these days. Whenever he speaks people listen, whoever he ends up casting ends up being better off for it, and despite not winning any Academy Awards personally yet, he's one of the most respected figureheads in the industry. He's a natural force to be reckoned with, and with Dunkirk, he's a master at his craft, completely capable, completely aware, and completely in sync with his vision.
First off is the fact that coming off the back of fantasy/science-fiction epics like the Batman trilogy, Inception, and Interstellar, Dunkirk is a much more sombre, held back affair. It's a fair bit shorter than any other Nolan films, and it's by far the film with the least amount of exposition and dialogue and relies much more on visual, visceral storytelling as a result. In many ways it's a downscaling of his typical style, in spite of the obvious scale of depicting the "miracle at Dunkirk", a tale so vivid, heart-wrenching, and grand that achieving true intimacy amidst the chaos is a near impossible task.
But the movie is film, close, and human, and it never ever breaks this format. It never leaves the battleground in search of context, in search of an explanation or an elaboration.
The tale of Dunkirk, however, is an obvious one for a war epic. The story of 400,000 British troops being caught in the French seaside village unable to get back home and the Nazi war machine closing is as exhilarating as it sounds, and in order to keep this massive story focused, the narrative is strictly divided into three separate sections, focusing on the ground troops on the beaches, the volunteers from England sailing across the channel to help with the evacuation, and the Spitfire pilots working to keep the transports safe on the journey. It's a structurally brilliant move to let these three stories of brave soldiers intertwine seamlessly throughout, and Dunkirk effortlessly jumps from one engaging scenario to the next, without ever losing its footing.
This is no small feat, and it's primarily anchored by some engaging performances, particularly by Mark Rylance and newcomer Fion Whitehead. Especially Whitehead's performance is a perfect illustration of subtle character exposition, as body language and facial expression become the primary way in which to communicate with the viewer. He only has a handful of lines, but is centre stage for a good quarter of the screen time, and it never grows stale.
And as we witness the various stages of the evacuation, we're treated to one engaging, heart-pumping scenario after the other, with torpedos sinking Destroyer ships, close to drowning pilots caught in the cockpit waiting for rescue, soldiers trapped in the belly of a beached fishing vessel like fish in the barrel, and all of these scenarios are accompanied by Hans Zimmer's most capable musical score yet, with a bellowing deep sound profile that grabs you by the neck and never lets go; it makes the entire experience feel physical and tangible. It's not a tale of war, it's plain war, and you're there with them on the beaches, in the air and on the sea in 1940.
In many ways, Dunkirk is a masterclass in discovering the intimacy within the grand, the small stories within the larger narrative. Whereas some may consider it slightly fragmented in its strict divide between the various sections, it remains one of the most intense war films in recent years, and certainly represents one talented director at his absolute best.