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In 'Dunkirk,' Christopher Nolan Brings New Life To True World War II Story


Filmmaker Christopher Nolan introduced himself to audiences by telling a story backwards in "Memento." He surprised audiences again by bringing seriousness to superhero movies with his "Dark Knight" trilogy. Our critic Bob Mondello says now Nolan has done a new kind of rethink for a real-life World War II story. It's called "Dunkirk."

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The first image on screen is at once bizarre and beautiful - a handful of British soldiers walking a French town's deserted streets as scraps of paper flutter down from the sky. They're inscribed with the unnerving words, we surround you. And as if to prove that, gunfire erupts. When one soldier, a slender kid named Tommy, runs past sandbags to escape, he finds a scene even more bizarre - a beach with tens of thousands of British troops lined up single-file right down to the water, trapped, awaiting rescue from an England so close it seems almost visible in the distance.


JAMES D'ARCY: (As Colonel Winnant) The enemy tanks have stopped.

KENNETH BRANAGH: (As Commander Bolton) Why?

D'ARCY: (As Colonel Winnant) Why waste precious tanks when they can pick us off from the air like fish in a barrel?

MONDELLO: In "Dunkirk," we're saving not a Private Ryan but more than 300,000 British troops, a rescue operation so enormous most filmmakers would use strategizing generals to help audiences understand it. Writer-director Christopher Nolan wants us to experience it as the soldiers did, so he shoots in IMAX and tells their stories in their own timeframes - a week on the beach, a day at sea, an hour in the air, all unfolding at the same time in a patchwork that somehow approximates the shattering terror of war - Tommy's frustrating week-long struggle to get off that beach as bombs explode...


MONDELLO: ...Intercut with a tiny boat's single day at sea as it rushes urgently with thousands of others to the shallow coastal waters where British destroyers can't go...


CILLIAN MURPHY: (As Shivering Soldier) If we go there, we'll die.

MONDELLO: ...And a vertigo-inducing hour in the air with a pair of Royal Air Force pilots in Spitfires.


JACK LOWDEN: (As Collins) He's on me.

TOM HARDY: (As Farrier) I'm on him.

MONDELLO: Despite its time-bending structure, "Dunkirk" manages to be crystal clear without many words - masterful visual storytelling on an epic scale. When people try to talk, they're often drowned out by the rat-a-tat of gunfire or by a Hans Zimmer score hell-bent on amplifying the throb of a ship's pistons, the scream of diving bombers.


MONDELLO: The chaos of war without swastikas, without ideology and especially without platitudes from the folks calling the shots. When Winston Churchill's words are heard, they're read by a soldier from a newspaper because "Dunkirk" is not about leaders. It's about the traumas and the heroics of the little guys who suffer the consequences of being led. Arguably that makes this gorgeous war movie an epic for our time. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.