Dunkirk: Christopher Nolan is Winning an Oscar. The End.

Dunkirk Plot Summary:

Beaten down and forced to evacuate, 400,000 Allied soldiers are stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, facing eminent attacks from the enemy.  With a depleted military force in the sea and air, it’s up to smaller boats and ordinary sailors to salvage as many survivors as they can.

When I walked out of Dunkirk, I was wowed like everybody else was.  Yes, it’s that incredible motion picture you’ve been hearing about for months.  No question.  It took me about fifteen minutes after the movie ended though to realize its true brilliance.  Christopher Nolan proves once again why he’s one of the greatest directors of all time.  With Memento, he delivered one of the most original psychological thrillers of our time.  With The Dark Knight Trilogy, he flipped the superhero genre on its head.  With Inception and Interstellar, he redefined science fiction.  We’ve seen a lot of war movies.  We’ve seen a lot of World War II war movies.  Once again though, Christopher Nolan has taken subject matter we’ve seen a hundred times and gives us something sorely lacking in film – originality.

This isn’t Hacksaw Ridge or Saving Private Ryan.  Those movies throw you right into a brick wall, brilliantly delivering the utter chaos, blood and guts that is war.  Dunkirk does something different.  It’s not about horror or shock value.  Dunkirk never builds towards one massive battle or set piece.  The real tension of Dunkirk is the waiting.  These soldiers are all waiting to die, with only bright glimmers of hope of survival.  They are all waiting for something to go wrong, as is the audience.

You are tense throughout this entire damn movie.  Instead of building towards massive battles, the movie ramps up every fifteen minutes before hitting you with short bursts of intensity.  Again, it’s not the type of war sequences where body parts fly across the screen.  These bursts of action are intimately intense, but still feel epic.  The waiting is what makes these moments that much more gripping.  This is Nolan at his finest.  Everything is so perfectly crafted and melded together.  The editing.  The camera work.  The sound.  The score.  Holy matza balls, the score!

Christopher Nolan and Hans Zimmer are reaching Steven Spielberg/John Williams collaboration levels.  The entire score for this movie is essentially one long note.  Think of the Joker theme from The Dark Knight playing for two hours.  The score cannot be praised enough, and is a HUGE reason why the whole movie works.  Zimmer is getting nominated for an Oscar.

What also works is the acting.  Through all the tension and nerve-racking mood Nolan is able to create, he never forgets about character.  Much has been made about Harry Styles in this film, and yes, he’s very good, although we need to calm down a little bit.  It’s really a tag team effort from Styles and Fionn Whitehead, who both play army privates.  Their roles are essential, as the movie basically happens through their eyes.  Like many great actors, they say a lot with very little dialogue.

The veteran actors make their mark as well.  Kenneth Branagh plays a naval commander, and while he doesn’t do a ton, his presence is very much appreciated, as he gets a few key lines.  The most bad ass character in the film though might be Tom Hardy (shocker).  Hardy plays a fighter pilot, and honestly, he’s the only actor who could have played this role.  Once again, Mr. Hardy is relegated to a damn mask throughout the entire movie.  It doesn’t matter though, because he’s Tom Hardy, and his eyes could probably win an Oscar.  Tom Hardy is the man.

The most compelling characters in the entire movie though involve a small sailing boat, led by Mark Rylance.  This is where I want to give Christopher Nolan a giant bear hug.  In a movie where you have tense aerial battles, ships capsizing, soldiers getting ambushed by bullets as they nearly drown, Christopher Nolan still manages to squeeze in a gripping psychological drama in the middle of the sea.  Unbelievable.

Rylance plays the ultimate good guy who just wants to rescue as many soldiers as possible, but he brings his son along, Peter, played by Tom Glynn-Carney, and his friend, George (Barry Keoghan), who’s fearful, but desperately wants to prove himself.  They end up picking up a deserted soldier out on the sea, played by Cillian Murphy, who is clearly rattled and borderline dangerous.

Murphy and Rylance are fantastic, but with all the talk of Harry Styles, poor Tom Glynn-Carney has been completely overlooked.  He may give the best performance in the movie.  In the middle of all this tension, the film slows down for an instant as these three characters share an extraordinarily powerful, but tragic moment.  At the end of it, Rylance gives this subtle nod that sums up the entire situation in a nutshell.  It’s absolutely brilliant and emotional as hell.  The nod Rylance gives is more impressive than anything he did in Bridge of Spies.

As good as the acting is, it all goes back to that tension, a word you’ll find in every review for this movie.  While you don’t get epic long battles, there are sequences that will make you want to get up and pace around the theater.  There’s an aerial battle towards the end that is riveting as hell.  The best way to describe it is like you’re watching your favorite sports team compete in the final moments of a Game 7.  It’s ridiculous.

The only disappointment I have with this movie is that it’s not my favorite film of the year.  That’s more of a me problem.  I’m not sure what I can really criticize though.  Nothing about it could have been handled better.  That all goes back to Christopher Nolan, a filmmaker at the top of his game.

I’m not sure this movie will win Best Picture, but Nolan has already won Best Director.  It’s over.  The end.  Lock it up.  We’re done here.

Rating: 9 out of 10 (OMG)

P.S. Random gripe – A Christopher Nolan movie that doesn’t have Michael Caine!  Not only that, there was a role at the end that ABSOLUTELY could have been played by Caine.  WTF, Nolan?!

Daniel Cohen is the hard-boiled Film Editor for the Pop Break. Besides reviews, Daniel writes box office predictions, Gotham reviews and Oscar coverage. He can also be found on the Breakcast. If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow's fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.