The finest war movies examine the personal struggles within the larger framework of a battle: the eye-level conflict.
That’s the strategy of “Dunkirk,” the ambitious, evocative (but at times too aloof) World War II epic written and directed by Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight” trilogy). The intriguing novelty here is Nolan’s three vantage points: land, sea and air.
The picture opens in 1940 with six British soldiers rummaging through a deserted French town as Nazi propaganda leaflets rain down. These pages boast, “We surround you,” revealing that the Allies are pinned against the English Channel.
And that’s about all the exposition Nolan supplies.
Unseen enemy gunfire drives a panicked Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead) to the beach, where several hundred thousand troops await rescue while the Luftwaffe strafes them.
Meanwhile, a civilian father (Oscar winner Mark Rylance), his teenage son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a schoolmate (Barry Keoghan) guide their own small yacht across the Channel, as one of many impromptu vessels employed to save their stranded countrymen. The journey gets thornier after they pick up a marooned, shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) who refuses to return to the battleground.
In the skies above them, two Spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) engage in aerial dogfights to protect the ragged fleet.
Nolan explains in chapter titles how these groups follow different time lines of an hour, a day and a week. This is because the planes carried only an hour of fuel, the boats took a day to cross the Channel and the soldiers were trapped on land for up to a week. But the film is edited in crosscut form to give the impression the events happen simultaneously, which accounts for abrupt shifts from day to night.
It’s almost as risky an editing gambit as Nolan’s “Memento,” famously presented in reverse chronology. But the structure pays off by emphasizing the “we’re all in this together” aura. The distinctive work of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Interstellar”) helps provide a stylistic unity that echoes washed-out Time-Life war photos and the poetic scope of silent movies.
However, this non-linear approach magnifies some shortcomings.
A considerable fraction of the dialogue is unintelligible — a litter of thick accents, mumbled line deliveries and words engulfed by sound effects. And physically, the soldiers often prove indistinguishable. Perhaps that’s why Nolan cast pop star Harry Styles (who does just fine playing a headstrong private), since audiences can pick him out of a crowd of 20-somethings with jet black hair.
All this keeps the movie at a distance. It’s a remote piece of work, despite the many harrowing scenarios designed to make the viewer ask, “What would I do?”
The most compelling of these involve the choices faced by the Royal Air Force pilots, who have to weigh whether to save fuel for their return or use up more to prevent the Nazis from bombing retreating ships. Other scenes capitalize on the awful ways people can drown. This flick rivals “Jaws” for making audiences nervous about the ocean.
Although the Battle of Dunkirk was a defeat by military standards, the operation became regarded as a moral victory and turning point in the war. Hitler could have effectively wiped out Britain’s forces, leading to Europe’s surrender before the Americans even arrived. Instead, the hodgepodge rescue allowed the Allies to regroup and fight another day.
This is best illustrated in a humble scene of an old man greeting one of the survivors as the infantrymen step back onto British soil.
“Well done,” the old man says.
“All we did is survive,” the soldier counters.
The old man softly replies, “That’s enough.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language.