The nerve-racking war thriller Dunkirk is the movie Christopher Nolan's entire career has been building up to, in ways that even he may not have realized. He's taken the British Expeditionary Force's 1940 evacuation from France, early in World War II -- a moment of heroism-in-defeat that has become an integral part of Britain's vision of itself -- and turned it into a nesting doll of increasingly breathless ticking-clock narratives. Some filmgoers might be expecting a sprawling, grandiose war epic. Instead, Nolan gives us one of the leanest, most ingenious studio films in quite a while: an intercutting montage of competing timelines that expand and contract and collide. And somehow, it's also uncharacteristically intimate.
It tells the story of the evacuation by cutting among three perspectives, each with its own specific time frame: one week following a British soldier (Fionn Whitehead) on the beach at Dunkirk, as he tries to find a way off this huge, doomed stretch of land; 24 hours on the small wooden yacht Moonstone, manned by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and two teenagers as they head across the roaring English Channel to aid in the rescue effort on the other side; one hour in the cockpit with RAF Spitfire pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy, his face once again totally covered) as he battles the Germans bombing the stranded army below.
The film's setup may sound confusing, but onscreen titles inform us of the film's variable timeframes early on. In the end, Dunkirk suggests that how you handle the most deflating existential defeat may well be the very thing that saves you. We all kind of need to be reminded of that these days.