Dunkirk (2017)

106 min. Director: Christopher Nolan. Cast: Aneurin Barnard, Fionn Whitehead, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Damien Bonnard, Mark Rylance.

With his WWII drama Dunkirk, writer-director Christopher Nolan applies his trademark ingenuity and clockwork precision to an otherwise straightforward story. The director of The Dark Knight and Interstellar has been called a “maximalist” filmmaker, a reputation bolstered by his insistence on using film and practical effects over the prevalent digital technologies. And yet Dunkirk could be called minimalist in dramatic terms, in its clean plotlines and sparse dialogue.

Dunkirk takes a tightly focused look at a time (1940) and place (Dunkirk, France) that found Allied soldiers in retreat trapped and vulnerable on a coastline. The primarily British and French soldiers had only the English Channel between them and salvation, but the threat of German bombers and U-boats severely limited the rescue effort. Down to one ship at a time, and that one ship a sitting duck, the soldiers' slim hope lies with a ragtag fleet of small civilian boats called up by Churchill.

Nolan cleverly structures that which is essentially a disaster story to unfold from three angles, each moving at a different pace. At “The Mole,” a long jetty of stone and wood, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) presides over the lines of British soldiers hoping for safe passage home across the channel. On the water, one Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) pilots his small vessel into the fray with a stock of life vests. In the air above, RAF pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) tries to ignore his busted fuel gauge while providing crucial air support. The respective timelines of one week, one day, and one hour converge at the climax, where land, sea, and air meet.

The principal protagonist—British Army private Tommy—embodies youth, the survival instinct and, when push comes to shove, a flash of moral character. Primarily, Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead) just wants to live, and while his prolonged success at doing so displays a bit more thoughtfulness than some, he’s not a conventionally brave or conspicuously resourceful hero. Nolan here resists painting in those kinds of broad strokes: Bolton can do little more than stand hapless watch, and Dawson doesn’t know the half of his own bravery, while a shellshocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) acts out destructively from a place of concussed terror.

Hans Zimmer’s anxious strings and ticking percussion contribute to the steady stream of high-tension set pieces rigorously staged and artfully photographed on 65mm film with IMAX cameras (the occasional conversation must always yield to the sudden fury of strafing and bombing). The Brits have taken to calling this precious history “the Miracle of Dunkirk,” a phrase Nolan invokes, and there is swelling-score inspiration to be had in the end. But any victory is Pyrrhic in this immersive war drama, with the soul-searing chaos of battle written on the face that is Dunkirk’s final image.