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Why 'Dunkirk' is one of the best war movies ever made

Harry Styles, left, Aneurin Barnard and Fionn Whitehead play British soldiers in the thriller about the evacuation of more than 400,000 Allied soldiers from Dunkirk, France, in 1940. 
Warner Bros Pictures
Harry Styles, left, Aneurin Barnard and Fionn Whitehead play British soldiers in the thriller about the evacuation of more than 400,000 Allied soldiers from Dunkirk, France, in 1940. 
Warner Bros Pictures
Published Jul. 20, 2017

After a career of mind-bending fantasies, writer-director Christopher Nolan has now crafted a historical epic almost too perfect to believe.

Dunkirk is Nolan's cinematic foray into reality, the true story of a Allied rescue against all odds in 1940 that stemmed the tide of World War II. Brilliantly conceived from triangulated timelines and perspectives, Dunkirk deserves mention among the finest war movies ever, and certainly among the best of any sort this year.

At barely 100 minutes, this is Nolan's shortest feature and a whiter-knuckled thriller for it. His movie conquers from land, sea and air in time frames ranging from an hour to a week then converging in a stirring finale, a seamless overlapping of time that's vintage Nolan.

Dunkirk has little in common with previous war classics except heroism and sacrifice, conveyed through the deeds of soldiers, pilots and civilians, not how graphically they die (looking at you, Saving Private Ryan). Nolan's screenplay dodges all war movie tropes; no girls back home to pine for, no foxhole exposition. There isn't time for anything but survival.

MORE: Top 5 war movies of the '80s

MORE: Top 5 war movies of the '80s

From the opening shot of Nazi leaflets fluttering from the sky like snow, Dunkirk announces its throat-grabbing intentions. Hoyte van Hoytema's camera tracks a group of British soldiers running scared through the leaflets and streets of Dunkirk in northern France where more than 400,000 Allied troops were surrounded by German forces.

Gunfire fells all of the runners except Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), who'll guide viewers to "the mole," a long beach dock where retreating soldiers pack shoulder-to-shoulder awaiting small boats taking them to battleship safety. For a week on Nolan's clock we'll see these soldiers as targets for German bombs and strafing while Col. Winnant (Kenneth Branagh) urges stiff upper lips as his quiver.

One day in Nolan time is spent with Dawson (Oscar winner Mark Rylance), steering his fishing boat across the English Channel to assist in picking up soldiers. Dawson's son and teenage friend join a dangerous mission complicated when they rescue a downed, shell-shocked Royal Air Force pilot (Cillian Murphy).

In the air for a Nolan hour, an RAF pilot (Tom Hardy) joins others in dogfights against German aircraft attacking the mole, killing troops and sinking rescue vessels. These aerial battles are Nolan's most immersive touches, using real airplanes and judicious CGI to thrilling effect. It's also a sign of Nolan's refusal to cheapen facts with star mechanics that Hardy's face isn't seen until the last minute; I'd forgotten he was in the cast until his oxygen mask comes off.

From these narrative corners, Nolan develops an extraordinary parade of tense set pieces. Soldiers are trapped inside supposedly safe places more than once, and even watching two soldiers attempting to use a dead man as an escape pass quickens the pulse. Dunkirk is purely visceral with little attention to characterization; we wouldn't learn much anyway in an hour, a day or a week among nearly a half-million strangers. Yet we learn what they're made of.

Dunkirk is a staggering feat of filmmaking, as Nolan's fans are accustomed. Van Hoytema's cinematography conveys death trap closeness even with IMAX cameras on a vast beach. Hans Zimmer again proves himself a masterfully dramatic composer, turning violins into the sound of spiraling aircraft. The performances are solid as such Nolan's vision requires, including pop star Harry Styles briefly.

Still, Dunkirk left me unexpectedly thrilled, not being a Nolan diehard or a war movie buff in general. But its timeless heroism and state-of-the-art execution makes me think they don't make 'em like Dunkirk anymore. In fact, they never have.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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