Written by Stephen Spoth
It begins and ends with the ticking of a clock.
For the hundred minutes in between, Dunkirk is determined to take you for a ride. It discards decades worth of war movie rules and replaces them with the visceral language of experiential cinema. Like Gravity before it, Dunkirk is a sharp, singular corkscrew of suspense, weaving three perspectives (land, sea, and air) across time for a portrait of war both sweeping and intimate.
Absent here are sermons about the morality of war, tragic backstories to fuel audience sympathy, and courageous acts by god-like soldiers. Instead we are given nameless, sometimes indistinguishable young men who clamor to stay afloat and stay alive. They line up on the beaches, helpless against impending airstrikes, and the real courage emerges from civilians who arrive on small rescue boats, risking their lives to save men they don’t know.
Some have accused Dunkirk of being cold or emotionally empty, a common criticism of Nolan’s work, but I would argue that the film’s refusal to gratify our desire for developed characters tests our compassion for the faceless men and women lost to acts of violence every day. In giving us little information about its protagonists, Dunkirk forces us to reckon with our shared humanity, and serves as sobering reminder of our responsibility to extend a compassionate hand to those in need, stranger or not.