It's not enough to say that "Dunkirk" is Christopher Nolan's best film. It's one of the best war films ever made, distinct in its look, in its approach and in the effect it has on viewers. There are movies -- they are rare -- that lift you out of your present circumstances and immerse you so fully in another experience that you watch in a state of jaw-dropped awe. "Dunkirk" is that kind of movie.
The battle of Dunkirk was not a victory, but a successful evacuation, and Nolan doesn't try to give it the contours of a conventional tale of triumph. When France fell to Hitler in 1940, it left 400,000 Allied soldiers, most of them British -- basically the entire British Army -- stranded on the beach, needing transport across the English Channel. To convey a sense of that day, Nolan stays focused, on a handful of soldiers, sailors, RAF pilots and civilian volunteers, all struggling to do their part and go home.
If we know the history, we know that almost 340,000 were successively evacuated and lived to fight another day -- and for years thereafter -- and that Hitler missed his best and only chance to win World War II in a single blow. But Nolan takes us into a mind-set that doesn't know these things. He throws us into the middle of the action, where there is no grand scheme and no overview, just moment-by-moment struggle.
And from the point of view of the men on that beach, in the boats, and in the air, it seems inconceivable that any of them, much less most of them, could possibly survive.
"Dunkirk" begins, as great films often will, with a scene of wonder and awe that lets us know, virtually from the first frame, that the filmmaker has his teeth into something big. We see a half dozen soldiers from behind, walking down the middle of the road in a picturesque French village. The colors are saturated to beautiful effect, and papers are billowing down from the sky. And then a soldier picks one up and we see that it's leaflet that has been dropped from an enemy airplane, telling the Allies that they're surrounded, that it's hopeless, and that they should surrender.
A skirmish immediately follows this, except that it's barely even a skirmish. It's just soldiers getting shot at and running for their lives. They never see who's shooting at them, and neither do we. It's chaos. Soon, the movie settles on a single soldier, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) to become a major focus, but we don't know much about him, and we never find out. "Dunkirk" is not a war movie where everybody gets to have a scintillating personality. Rather, it depicts a hiatus from personality, an ordeal in which life, under assault, is reduced to the basics.
This distance has the unique effect of keeping us from fully identifying with one character as the viewer's surrogate, in a way that, say, Tom Hanks was our surrogate in "Saving Private Ryan." In this way, Nolan doesn't offer us a replacement for our participation in the war. Rather, he enlists us in the war ourselves, so that we jump out of our skins when snipers shoot holes in a boat that we feel that we're on. And we react in terror when the ocean blazes with an oil fire, as men, underwater, hold their breath and try to find a safe spot to resurface.
Nolan forces us out of the usual movie mode of thinking, so long as the hero survives, everything will be OK. He involves us instead in every scene and every disaster and near disaster, so that we feel it -- and end up, by the end of the film, drained and exhausted and yet strangely excited, in the way great art is always exciting. We're in the plane with Tom Hardy as an RAF pilot, trying to prevent the German planes from bombing the British boats, just as we are with Mark Rylance as an average British citizen, piloting his pleasure boat to Dunkirk in hope of rescuing his countryman.
Like the men at Dunkirk, the actors do their duty to the fullest, but no one stands out from the pack, because it's not that kind of movie. In this way and others, "Dunkirk" feels supremely and appropriately English. It's all no fuss, no bother, and no obvious tugging at the emotions, but the emotions are there. It's all in day's work -- but what a day's work.
Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle's movie critic. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @MickLaSalle
War movie. Starring Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy. Directed by Christopher Nolan. (PG-13. 106 minutes.) ___
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