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Christopher Nolan’s World War II thriller Dunkirk is his best movie, and it’s now on Netflix

The perfect appetizer for Oppenheimer

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Dunkirk - Farrier in cockpit Image: Warner Bros. Pictures
Austen Goslin (he/him) is an assignment editor for entertainment news. He also writes about the latest TV shows and movies, and particularly loves all things horror.

Christopher Nolan’s only a few weeks away from premiering his newest movie, Oppenheimer, which means it’s the perfect chance to catch up on his best one: Dunkirk, which is now streaming on Netflix.

Dunkirk tells the true story of the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of British soldiers stranded on the French beaches of Dunkirk toward the beginning of the second World War. With Nazis encroaching from every side, most of the British army seemed hopelessly trapped, and the war doomed — after all, how could England defend itself without an army, let alone fight to help liberate the rest of Europe? But in the eleventh hour, a daring rescue plan came through to save the continent when hundreds of civilians sailed the channel to help rescue their boys.

Image: Warner Bros.

Because, it seems, he’ll never tell another story straight on, Nolan breaks the rescue narrative up, showing it from different perspectives and different time periods. We follow soldiers (Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles) stranded on the beach for days, a pilot (an excellent Tom Hardy) who arrives for the climactic last few hours, and the home-boating crew of Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan).

The story of the rescue at Dunkirk is already one of the most incredible, fascinating, and miraculous moments in modern history, but in the hands of Nolan, it’s equal parts panicked and inspiring. Nolan’s true trick with Dunkirk, and the advantage of the multiple perspectives he employs, is to show all the ways the operation was a massive logistical undertaking and impressive feat of coordination, while at the same time an absolute horror show and chaotic mess.

In Nolan’s vision of Dunkirk, the focus never leaves the ground and the individuals at the center of the story. A far weaker adaptation would cut to Winston Churchill ordering the navy’s requisition of civilian boats, or bring a general in to tell us how important the army is to the war effort. Instead, Nolan gives his audience the credit we deserve and explains nothing. We’re right there with the soldiers, who don’t know whether someone’s coming to save them or not. When Kenneth Branagh finally shows up as a commander, he’s just clinging to hope like the rest of them. By the time Branagh does help us to understand the larger picture, it’s because he’s staying on the beach, hoping to get the French soldiers out next.

Dunkirk - Commander Bolton looking at medical ship Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

This kind of perspective gives a stunning view of Dunkirk and is the kind of choice that can only come from a filmmaker as confident and accomplished as Nolan — not to mention the fact that there aren’t a lot of other directors who would commit to finding real, working Spitfires to make sure the planes in the movie looked just right.

But for all Nolan’s usual focus on the scale and grandeur of his stories, they often require a bit too much explanation to land with the kind of weight he seems to intend — including in Tenet, a perfect blockbuster. With Dunkirk, there’s no explanation needed. We see kids on a beach desperate to survive, we see a world at war, and we have Hans Zimmer’s incredible ticking-clock score reminding us that every minute they stay, they’re a minute closer to death. It’s harrowing and clear as day, and the movie never lets its focus wane from that. All great war movies double as horror films, and Nolan knows that simplicity keeps things even scarier.