War movies are all basically structured the same way. They have three acts and they're usually around two hours long, with the first hour focused on introducing the audience to the soldiers and making you care about them and whether they'll get home to their newborn or survive their one last deployment, etc.
The next 45 minutes is a series of massive battle sequences in which the filmmakers kill off a few audience favorites and show multiple acts of bravery and heroism. The final few minutes gives the audience closure and says goodbye to the characters both living and dead, basically jerking the tears out of the audience.
Christopher Nolan thinks that's a stupid way to make movies and basically does the polar opposite. The entirety of "Dunkirk" is a single 106-minute climax that never once wanes in intensity. The big battle already happened five minutes before the movie started and the Allied soldiers lost, so the entire movie follows three sets of characters: the thousands of soldiers on the beach waiting for rescue, a civilian pleasure boat headed toward the soldiers hoping to rescue them and a couple of fighter pilots trying to protect the soldiers from the air.
Since it's a Christopher Nolan movie and he's never content to make anything straightforward, the scenes on the beach take place over a week, the boat section across a single day and the fighter pilots over one hour. The three stories aren't taking place concurrently, so the chronology of the entire movie keeps you on your toes. It's the "Pulp Fiction" of war movies or maybe the "Memento" of depressing stories of failure.
"Dunkirk" is exhausting and stressful. From the opening frame to the closing credits, the film is almost non-stop bombs and gunfire, never letting the audience catch their breath. It tricks you into thinking you have a second to grab a mouthful of popcorn or a drink of root beer but in reality, good-ol' Christopher Nolan is only toying with your emotions. I saw this in IMAX and they had the sound system cranked up to 11, simultaneously keeping me spellbound, deafened and consistently moments away from a panic attack.
The film is a masterpiece that I never want to see again. It's probably one of the best war movies ever made and a huge step forward in Christopher Nolan's technical directing bonafides. The always incredible cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema ("Her" and "Let the Right One In") keeps everything gritty with desaturated blues and yellows so it's always a pleasure to look at even when it's sad and awful.
The cast is filled with unknowns and movie stars, which is interesting. Watching Tom Hardy shoot down Nazis followed by the very good Harry Styles (in his film debut, not counting OneDirection music videos) trying not to drown is pretty surreal, but it works. It helps give the film a chaotic feeling that makes everything just a little more nail-biting.
There are a few bits of corny dialogue and some wonky character motivations, but it never gets in the way of "Dunkirk" being a lean and brutal (yet bloodless) war film for the ages. In 20 or 30 years, the film will be spoken of alongside "Full Metal Jacket" and "Platoon." It's not quite as good as those movies, but it's a whole hell of a lot better than "Saving Private Ryan." Just don't forget your Xanax.
Dir. Christopher Nolan
Old Mill Stadium 16 & IMAX, Sisters Movie House, Redmond Cinema