One of the most indelible images in “Dunkirk,” Christopher Nolan’s brilliant new film, is of a British plane in flames. The movie recounts an early, harrowing campaign in World War II that took place months after Germany invaded Poland and weeks after Hitler’s forces started rolling into the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. The plane, having glided to a stop, has been defiantly set ablaze by the pilot to avoid its being captured. It’s an image of unambiguous defeat but also an emblem of resistance and a portent of the ghastly conflagrations still to come.
It’s a characteristically complex and condensed vision of war in a movie that is insistently humanizing despite its monumentality, a balance that is as much a political choice as an aesthetic one. And “Dunkirk” is big — in subject, reach, emotion and image. Mr. Nolan shot and mostly finished it on large-format film (unusual in our digital era), which allows details to emerge in great scale. Overhead shots of soldiers scattered across a beach convey an unnerving isolation — as if these were the last souls on earth, terminally alone, deserted. (Seen on a television, they would look like ants.) Film also enriches the texture of the image; it draws you to it, which is crucial given the minimalist dialogue.
The movie is based on a campaign that began in late May 1940 in the French port city of Dunkirk, where some 400,000 Allied soldiers — including more than 200,000 members of the British Expeditionary Force, the British army in Western Europe — were penned in by the Germans. The British, faced with the capture or possible annihilation of their troops, initiated a seemingly impossible rescue. Named Operation Dynamo, this mission has assumed near-mythic status in British history and been revisited in books and onscreen; it shows up in “Mrs. Miniver,” a 1942 Hollywood weepie about British pain and perseverance in the war meant to encourage American support for the Allies.
War movies tend to play out along familiar lines, including lump-in-the throat home-front tales like “Mrs. Miniver.” “Dunkirk” takes place in battle, but it, too, is a story of suffering and survival. Mr. Nolan largely avoids the bigger historical picture (among other things, the reason these men are fighting is a given) as well as the strategizing on the front and in London, where the new prime minister, Winston Churchill, was facing the horrifying possibility of diminished military muscle. Churchill is heard from, in a fashion, but never seen. Mr. Nolan instead narrows in on a handful of men who are scrambling and white-knuckling their way into history on the sea, in the air and on the ground.
By turns intimate and sweeping, the film opens with six soldiers walking away from the camera down a spookily deserted street. Their bodies are shown in full, head to toe, and they are flanked by low buildings, the sort that now look so charming in touristic photographs. Slips of paper swirl around the men like autumn leaves. A few grab at the papers. One tries slurping water from a nearby garden hose; another pokes a hand through an open window, searching for a smoke. Still another reads one of the papers, which shows a map of the surrounding area encircled by arrows and ominous words of warning in English. He then crumples it, unbuckles his belt and begins to squat.
It’s a somewhat perplexing, awkwardly funny moment — this is a manifestly serious situation, and you’re about to watch a man defecate. You don’t know whether to laugh, but before you decide, shots ring out and the soldiers start running, the camera quickly following. The haunted emptiness is suddenly filled with the sounds of frantic escape and whizzing bullets. And then the men begin falling, one, two, three, until just the unbuckling one remains, scrambling first over a gate and soon onto a beach where thousands of other soldiers are massed and waiting. He silently takes in the extraordinary scene and then hustles over to a dune to begin undoing his belt again.
Scarcely a word has been uttered up to this point, yet much has been expressed: isolation; danger; desperation; fear; relief; and sheer, extreme bodily need and effort. Throughout this de facto prologue, Mr. Nolan emphasizes the concrete details, making you acutely aware of the fine-grained textures — the sores and embedded dirt on a man’s hands — and every resonant sound: the dribbling of water, the fluttering of paper, and the sharp crack and mechanical buzzing of rifle fire that turns into muffled thuds when bullets enter bodies. By the time the surviving soldier reaches the beach, you are already closely acquainted with his heavy breathing, wild fumbling and clumsy, chaotic running.