War is hell, as everyone knows. War movies, on the other hand, are another story — and with reviews for Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk beginning to emerge, it's looking as if this re-creation of the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940 has left critics near-unanimous about one simple fact: this movie is a masterpiece.
Don't just take my word for it. "Dunkirk is an impressionist masterpiece," writes The Hollywood Rreporter's Todd McCarthy, who goes on to add that "Nolan has gotten everything just right" in the movie. McCarthy takes particular note of the contributions of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, production designer Nathan Crowley and costume designer Jeffrey Kurland. "All of Nolan's films are intensely visual, but it's fair to say that Dunkirk is especially so, given the sparseness, and strict functionality, of the dialogue," he argues. "This is not a war film of inspirational speeches, digressions about loved ones back home or hopes for the future. No, it's all about the here and now and matters at hand under conditions that demand both endless waiting and split-second responses."
Time Out's Dave Calhoun agrees, writing that "the power of Christopher Nolan’s harrowing, unusual dramatic re-creation is that it tries — with real success — not to make any of this feel like just another war movie. Instead there’s an uneasy sense of a bloody, strange event unfolding in that unknowable way that those on the ground might have experienced it. Dunkirk is awe-inspiring and alienating, as it should be."
That's a theme touched on by IndieWire's David Ehrlich, who writes, "Few movies have so palpably conveyed the sheer isolation of fear, and the extent to which history is often made by people who are just trying to survive it — few movies have so vividly illustrated that one man can only do as much for his country as a country can do for one of its men. But Nolan, by stressing that grim truth to its breaking point, returns from the fray with a commanding testament to a simple idea: We may die alone, but we live together."
Ehrlich agrees with The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, with both critics describing the movie as Nolan's best to date. "This is a powerful, superbly crafted film with a story to tell, avoiding war porn in favour of something desolate and apocalyptic, a beachscape of shame, littered with soldiers zombified with defeat, a grimly male world with hardly any women on screen," Bradshaw raves.
The movie received a perfect score at The Guardian, and also at Empire, where Nick De Semlyen writes, "Today’s audiences have spent decades watching digital dogfights in Star Wars movies, themselves originally inspired by World War II movies such as Twelve O'Clock High. Nolan gets the wow factor back by stripping away the pixels, shooting real Spitfires on real sorties above the real English Channel. The results are incredible, particularly on the vast expanse of an IMAX screen, with the wobbly crates veering and soaring above a mass of blue."
Not everyone thinks that the movie is entirely perfect, however; the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips notes that the movie's trifurcated narrative structure isn't ideal. "How do these three story strands intertwine, by land, by sea and by air? It hurts to say it, but not easily. This is why I consider Dunkirk a worthwhile frustration, buoyed by some genuine mastery. As powerful and exciting as Dunkirk is, at its best, I found the time games self-conscious and vexing, and in the context of a fictionalized true story of thousands of lives lost, and hundreds of thousands saved, the structural gimmick feels, well, gimmicky."
Even Phillips, however, gives the movie three out of four stars, and notes that it provokes "the response moviemakers of all kinds have been after for more than a century: whew! Followed by: wow."
Even for those critical of parts of Dunkirk, it seems, the movie leaves audiences with a sense of a phrase coined in a far later war: shock and awe.
Dunkirk is in theaters Friday.