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War epic 'Dunkirk' has a stopwatch where a heart should be

Christopher Nolan's precision-engineered war epic is a technical masterpiece, but something's missing.

Warner Bros
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Fionn Whitehead awaits deliverance from the beaches of Dunkirk.

Melinda Sue Gordon

Known for his fantastical sci-fi and superhero movies including "The Dark Knight" and "Inception," Christopher Nolan takes on a true story in "Dunkirk." But while this striking war film is drawn from the experiences of real people, it manages to be less human than his usual fantasy fare.

"Dunkirk" tells the story of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of trapped British troops from the shores of Europe early in World War 2. As the clock ticks down to the potential destruction of the allied armies, nearly 350,000 men were rescued from the beaches of Northern France over the course of a desperate week in late May 1940. Many of them were ferried to waiting ships by hundreds of small civilian craft that had been sailed over the Channel from England by ordinary men and women. German bombers harried the evacuation all the while, but Hitler instructed his army to hold back rather than wiping out the retreating armies.

Having read that last paragraph, you now know more about the events of Dunkirk than you'll learn from the film. Writer and director Christopher Nolan isn't interested in giving a history lesson. Don't be fooled by the prestigious cast including Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh and, er, Harry Styles donning uniforms: this isn't one of those classic historical ensemble war movies like "Battle of the Bulge" or "A Bridge Too Far" in which A-listers of the age play out the entirety of a battle from the generals analysing the situation down to the foot soldiers slugging it out. It takes an hour, for example, before a throwaway line answers the pressing and distracting question of why the navy and air force are so conspicuously absent. 

In fact, the film isn't interested in context of any kind: the soldiers we follow don't have names, families, backstories, or even much dialogue. This is purely cinema of sensation, placing you on the shoulder of these painfully young men living from moment to deadly moment as they face gunfire, torpedoes, drowning and relentless terror.

That intimate, immersive experience is masterfully created. In previous films Nolan made dream dimensions and outer space feel viscerally real, and he's on top of his game here. Whether you're squashed into the cockpit of a Spitfire, huddled in the darkened hold of a boat or running through the streets of Dunkirk, you're glued to the character you're following. The film makes amazing use of the unseen, resisting the temptation to cut away and show who's shooting at us. It never gives us the relief of seeing a different angle on the situation, making every moment vibrate with tension. 

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Kenneth Branagh is among the heavyweight cast.

Melinda Sue Gordon

Hans Zimmer's score brilliantly adds to the nerve-shredding tension with a near-abstract assemblage of jarring noise, underscored by the omnipresent ticking of a stopwatch. The sound design is extraordinary, placing you in the terrifying moment wth thunderous gunshots and crescendoing engine screams of an unseen enemy. 

You have to admire the formal precision of the film, which is all about placing you in the moment when the only thing that matters is survival. By restricting what you see of the enemy and focusing on life-or-death situations that can only be survived rather than outfought or defeated through conspicuous heroism, "Dunkirk" almost doesn't feel like a war movie like "The Longest Day" or "Saving Private Ryan". By stripping context from the characters and from the historical situation, "Dunkirk" becomes so impressionistic it feels more like a meditation than a recounting of a historical event. Refusing empty spectacle, it's a welcome antidote to the city-tumbling carnage-porn of many modern blockbusters.

But this devotion to immediacy comes at the price of emotional connection. We don't know who any of these boys are. Nolan has devoted three movies to a man who puts on rubber armour and pointy ears to beat up criminals, but he doesn't even give some of these real-life characters names: "Peaky Blinders" star Cillian Murphy plays one of the film's major characters, who the credits inform me is called "Shivering soldier". And the nominal main character, played by Fionn Whitehead, is named Tommy, the symbolic nickname for a British soldier.

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Harry Styles (left) acquits himself well as one of the soldiers awaiting deliverance.

Warner Bros

In a sense, that makes these boys everymen. They could be anyone, and this could be any war. But I do wonder what Nolan is trying to say about every man: we meet Tommy trying to con and scam his way past the queue of thousands of other soldiers praying for deliverance, making his symbolic everyman name feel like a cynical statement. The "miracle of Dunkirk" is a cornerstone of British national identity, a myth of the plucky underdog snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, and as two biographies of Winston Churchill hit the big screen this summer ("Churchill" and "Darkest Hour"), Nolan undercuts post-Brexit nationalist nostalgia with an unsentimental portrait of scared boys lashing out against each other.

So not only do we not know who these people are, but we don't know why we'd want to root for them. Again, this may be a technically clever formal device, but it's one that left me feeling hollow.

There's more heroism on display in the film's other two strands, in which a small boat captained by stoic Mark Rylance crosses the Channel to help out, and a group of fighter pilots led by unflappable Tom Hardy try to fight off marauding enemy planes. 

As the stopwatch ticks, the three strands of the film's tricksy structure -- soldiers, sailors and airmen -- are interweaved in a complicated and fragmented timescale. Nolan loves messing about with the passage of time -- see "Memento", "Inception" and "Interstellar" -- but that seems to work better in his more sci-fi and fantasical films. Here it's needlessly confusing and repetitive. The aerial story in particular is dragged out across the course of the film. Again, this non-linear narrative is technically clever, but doesn't add anything compelling.  

"Dunkirk" is hugely technically impressive, and that certainly seems to be winning over the critics, earning a Metacritic score of 90. It is an enormously cinematic work that deserves to be seen in full-blown 70mm IMAX for the swooping, dizzying aerial combat alone, which is perhaps the most realistic and nail-biting depiction of the exacting nature of a dogfight. Christopher Nolan clearly doesn't need to invent fantasy worlds to create cinematic brilliance.

But for a film that so brilliantly places you in the moment with the men who lived through this nerve-shredding ordeal, "Dunkirk" is uninterested in who these people were. As gripping as it is in the moment, it's as cold as the windswept beach on which it's set and as austere as the stopwatch ticking on the soundtrack -- precise, implacable, heartless.

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