Nolan is a talented film maker going back to his debut with Memento. He's also made Inception, Interstellar, Insomnia and The Dark Knight trilogy (the second of which, The Dark Knight, is by far the best superhero movie ever made). Like those films, Dunkirk looks amazing (there is apparently no, or very little CGI) and it also contains Nolan's trademark intertwined, time twisting plots (in this instance, three such) which ends up working in this context, though there were a few minutes late in the film where I thought it might end up too much.
What we see, for the first time, is Nolan bringing his touch to real events; The miraculous evacuation from May 26, 1940 through June 4, 1940, of 338,000 British and French troops surrounded by the German Army in (late May 1940, which at the same time was a military disaster for Britain. This is not The Longest Day or A Bridge Too Far where we go back and forth between the battlefield and grand strategy discussions. Nolan is focused on the soldiers, aviators and sailors (including the civilians who took their craft into danger at Dunkirk). He utilizes Kenneth Branagh sparingly as a senior British naval officer for a few quick bursts of exposition scattered throughout, but that's it. At one point we hear the famous conclusion of Churchill's "we shall fight them on the beaches" speech, but via a young soldier reading it aloud from a newspaper. The exposition is enough to alert us to the terrible decisions Churchill and his War Cabinet made during those days, and the human costs of those decisions, specifically to withhold much of the Royal Navy and Air Force from support of the evacuation because of the need to conserve precious resources for Hitler's anticipated invasion of Britain.
Nolan has come in for some criticism for his approach. We never see the Germans. No one talks about Nazi horrors. There is not much historical context. Not all of his British characters (and this is a very British film) are heroic or noble. But it is a noble and patriotic film, filled with love of country, love of Britain. By the end, even those characters who are confused about the meaning of what they've endured, at least glimpse its significance when they return home.
Dunkirk also captures another aspect of the war. We know how WW2 ended. In late May 1940 no one knew how it would end, nor what would happen next and the movie is true to that. There is a contingent aspect to history, as their always is moving forward, though hard for us to grasp looking back. Unbeknownst to most of Britain at the time, Churchill's War Cabinet debated from May 25 to May 28 whether to respond positively to Mussolini's offer to mediate between Britain and Germany. Churchill, who only became Prime Minister on May 10, was adamantly opposed to negotiations (see Churchill Ascends). He finally carried the day, telling a meeting of his full Cabinet on May 28:
If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.The emotional heart of the movie are a Spitfire pilot played by Tom Hardy, who probably says fewer than 50 words during the movie, and Mark Rylance as a father who takes his small pleasure boat, along with his son and son's friend to Dunkirk. Rylance's character (who I found from listening to my friend Titus's splendid podcast on the film, is based on Charles Lightoller, second officer of Titanic, who performed heroically during its sinking in 1912 and in 1940 set off on his yacht to rescue soldiers at Dunkirk) is laconic but he proves as eloquent as Churchill with his few words. The most interesting role choice by the director is Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), an unheroic soldier desperately seeking a way off the beach. Nolan takes some risks with the audience here but pulls it off.
Excerpts from Winston Churchill speech in Parliament, June 4, 1940
When, a week ago today, I asked the House to fix this afternoon as the occasion for a statement, I feared it would be my hard lot to announce the greatest military disaster in our long history. I thought-and some good judges agreed with me-that perhaps 20,000 or 30,000 men might be re-embarked. But it certainly seemed that the whole of the French First Army and the whole of the British Expeditionary Force north of the Amiens-Abbeville gap would be broken up in the open field or else would have to capitulate for lack of food and ammunition. These were the hard and heavy tidings for which I called upon the House and the nation to prepare themselves a week ago.
Nevertheless, our thankfulness at the escape of our Army and so many men, whose loved ones have passed through an agonizing week, must not blind us to the fact that what has happened in France and Belgium is a colossal military disaster.
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.