How ironic that reviewers have rushed to call Dunkirk Christopher Nolan's best film, as if in implicit rebuke to all his genre pictures, when all he did was make a war film just as he would make a genre picture. As for reviews declaring Dunkirk one of the greatest war pictures, don't make me laugh. It's neither that nor Nolan's best film -- for me, that is either The Dark Knight or The Prestige -- but it is a decent war film and admirable in its compactness at under two hours. More than anything else, Dunkirk is a battle movie done as a thriller, designed to keep the audience in constant suspense regardless of their knowledge of history. Most people going to the movie know (I hope!) that the good guys win this one, that the British manage to evacuate their army with help from a cross-channel civilian flotilla. But that doesn't tell you whether Nolan's fictional characters will make it through or not. Unlike most battle films, Dunkirk is a micro-epic, focusing on whether a few particular characters whose individual fates are uncertain will survive or succeed. We don't really get the macro perspective except for Kenneth Branagh's scenes as an anxious naval commander, and unlike the classic World War II battle film template, we don't get the enemy perspective at all. On one level that hurts Dunkirk because it can't answer the question of why the Germans didn't make a serious effort to wipe out the British army, though any film of this story can't help but beg that question. On the other hand, it's a matter of artistic license not to care what the Germans were thinking.
The whole point of Nolan's Dunkirk is to immerse 21st century movie audiences in the terrifying immediacy of 20th century war, and it succeeds at that as much as any film can that simultaneously distracts the audience with Nolanesque gimmickry. To Nolan's credit, he's upfront about the gimmickry as he introduces his three storylines. The gimmick is that the three stories, while intercut with each other constantly, aren't actually concurrent until near the end of the picture. The opening story, dealing with some stray soldiers straggling to the beach and struggling to worm their way onto any available escape ship, takes place over the course of a week. A second narrative featuring Mark Rylance as a civilian boat captain taking part in the rescue mission over the objections of Nolan stalwart Cillian Murphy (who has a seemingly incomplete story arc of his own linking the beach and boat stories) takes place over the course of one day. The third thread, focusing on Tom Hardy's Spitfire pilot (the actor again spends much of a film behind a mask) battling German planes, plays out over the course of a single hour. There's no real reason to do this apart from "Christopher Nolan," but as long as audiences understand what the onscreen notes explain it doesn't really hurt the picture, either. None of the storylines spoil each other, allowing the audience to concentrate on each individual deathtrap or combat episode. Structurally, Dunkirk is not unlike those feature-length condensations of golden-age serials that include all the cliffhangers but leave little room for much else. Think of it as a Republic picture made with absolute mastery and a grown-up screenplay on an unlimited budget, with the added Nolan virtue of minimal fakery of the sea and air action. There's no disputing that Nolan is very good at suspense, and credit is definitely due the skill with which he (as sole writer) finally converges the three storylines, as Hardy battles to keep a German plane from slaughtering helpless soldiers, including our beach heroes, swimming from a sinking minesweeper to Rylance's boat. The hyperbole of early reviewers might provoke a backlash that the film doesn't deserve, but that hyperbole does compel me to say that Dunkirk, for all its virtues, is the most overrated film of 2017 so far.