Though director Christopher Nolan's films are about superheroes and space travel and world wars, the moments within them that most interest him are not about Batman or the Joker or the clash of mighty armies.
He's keen to show how ordinary people choose to act in dire circumstances, and we see in these movies vignettes that stand as mini-referendums on human decency: the passengers on the ferry boats rejecting the Joker's kill-or-be-killed game in The Dark Knight, the dilemma of the refugees seeking to cross the bridge in The Dark Knight Rises (drawn, surely, from a similar incident that occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina).
No wonder Nolan was so captivated by the WWII story of Dunkirk, less a battle (it's PG-13) than a massive rescue operation facilitated by the courage and the actions of common folk.
In Nolan's stirring Dunkirk, we see that the fate of an apparently doomed British force (some 400,000 men) cannot be determined by its politicians or its generals or even its soldiers — their pell-mell retreat from Nazi forces has stranded them in the French port of Dunkirk, where they're trapped, backs to the sea, where shallow waters prevent hulking warships from evacuating them.
England's leaders are out of options, but the stranded soldiers are not out of luck. Miles away, across the English Channel, hundreds of citizens and fisherman board their own personal or commercial vessels and set out for France.
Nolan condenses the experiences of the soldiers and citizen volunteers into just a few characters (the movie runs a scant 107 minutes), and his movie becomes a compelling mixture of the epic and the intimate.
The narrative follows an infantryman (Fionn Whitehead, later joined by Harry Styles) as he eludes the Germans and tries various desperate means of finding a berth on a rescue ship. Oscar winner Mark Rylance is a boat owner, armed with nothing more than an argyle sweater vest, who takes his two sons aboard his sailboat and heads for France, along the way picking up a shipwreck survivor (Cillian Murphy) whose PTSD complicates their mission. Overhead, a British fighter pilot (Tom Hardy) deals with Nazi aircraft bombing and strafing the survivors and rescuers.
Dunkirk has some standard disaster-movie touches, and a pushy score from Hans Zimmer (next to IMAX speakers, I felt as though Zimmer was actually trying to hurt me). Yet its unglamorous tales of survival make the drama feel gritty and truthful. Whitehead's character volunteers as a stretcher bearer mainly to cut to the front of a rescue line, but there is no way to game a situation this chaotic. Men claw their way on to troop ships; those ships are strafed or torpedoed or sunk.
Human nature is on full display, for better, for worse, or both. The man who commits a selfish act in order to survive and the man who acts gallantly to save others may, in fact, be the same man.
War and survival complicate moral algebra. Hardy's pilot maneuvers to destroy a German bomber attacking a transport ship, but can't accomplish this until he diverts to destroy the Messerschmidt that's trying to destroy him. His eyes dart between the doomed ship and the German fighter, and we feel the agonizing dimension of his choice.
These aerial scenes are spectacular — photographed in panoramic 70 mm. But the spectacle coexists with realism — Nolan, for instance, puts us inside the cockpit of the Spitfire, England's justly revered fighter, but we see that the fighter's reputation does not derive from its primitive cockpit controls, which look like a '79 Corolla. Watching Hardy grapple with them adds to the tension.
Nolan fractures the narrative so that it loops back on itself — we see the events from the perspective of different characters and from different chronological vantage points, though the story coheres by movie's end.
So, at last, does the movie's emotional component, as the hope-starved men on the beach in France peer through the lifting fog to see their bobbing boats of their countrymen.
Or if not their countrymen, their allies. The evacuation included tens of thousands of French and Polish soldiers, who lived to fight another day. A reminder that important alliances and friendships, treated so flippantly by leaders today, were forged in blood, and not so long ago.
Nolan drives the point home in the final moments, when a British naval officer (Kenneth Branagh) stays long past the last possible moment, determined to save retreating French. It's my guess, watching Dunkirk, that Nolan did not vote for Brexit.
Directed by Christopher Nolan. With Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles and Cillian Murphy. Distributed by Warner Bros.
Running time: 107 minutes
Parent's guide: PG-13 (war violence, adult themes).
Playing at: Area theaters.