Christopher Nolan returned to the big screen this past weekend with Dunkirk — and he’s a whole new man! A World War II movie bereft of science fiction that’s under two hours long? OK, sure, there are needlessly complicated overlapping timelines, but Dunkirk is still a fresh look for Nolan. A brand-new world, full of incredible sweaters. After the anxiety from seeing Dunkirk subsided, the Ringer staff answered a bunch of questions to break it down.
1. What is your tweet-length review of ‘Dunkirk’?
Amanda Dobbins: Dunkirk was so good that I’m not even mad about it upstaging Atonement.
Juliet Litman: The most expensive art house war movie.
Andrew Gruttadaro: An incredible-looking, incredibly tense war movie … but with, like, MULTIPLE TIMELINES, dude.
Jonathan Tjarks: If someone turned a tweetstorm into a novel. A lot of great scenes without much characterization.
Michael Baumann: It’s very pretty, but I’m not as sure as I’d like to be that I got more out of it than I did Atonement.
Donnie Kwak: It’s the trailer, except 106 minutes long. Which is not a bad thing!
Jordan Coley: The most viscerally accurate facsimile of what I imagine it would have been like to experience the sheer terror and uncertainty of war.
Danny Heifetz: A 106-minute drowning montage that made me hyperaware of my mortality.
Chris Ryan: There Will Be Spitfires.
Charlotte Goddu: Dunkirk is the first time I’ve ever appreciated being made to feel really, really stressed.
Paolo Uggetti: Imagine holding your breath underwater for almost two hours while listening to Hans Zimmer jam out. That was Dunkirk.
Katie Baker: The rare war movie where no one takes a crumpled photo of a loved one out of their chest pocket, and for that I respect it.
2. What was the best moment of the movie?
Dobbins: Truly sorry to be the person talking about the Oscars in July, but I feel like we can hand Best Supporting Actor to Mark Rylance right now. Can you imagine this film without him?
Tjarks: The scene in the boat when the quiet guy reveals he’s French to avoid being shot by the British soldiers. That was legitimately nerve-racking.
Heifetz: A few times we see soldiers haplessly swimming from the wreckage of a sinking ship, only for the camera to immediately cut to an overhead panoramic cockpit shot of the English Channel stretching beyond the horizon in every direction. A handful of men trying to swim somewhere juxtaposed with the vast nothingness of nowhere made my heart sink.
Baumann: Gibson, Harry Styles, and The Main Guy Who Doesn’t Talk Much are sitting on the sand, the morning after the ship they thought was going to take them to safety got torpedoed and they were literally dragged back to the beach.
Gruttadaro: Actually, maybe the first shot of the movie, of a handful of soldiers wandering the empty streets of Dunkirk. I could live in that minute.
Kwak: The opening 10 minutes are almost unbearably tense and visceral, which sets the table well for the entire film.
Baker: The head nod of approval from the stoic civilian dad when his son showed mercy upon Cillian Murphy. I got weepy just typing this.
Zoladz: The little tear forming in Kenneth Branagh’s eye when he saw the civilian ships on the horizon. Also any scene involving tea with jam and bread. It looked delicious.
Schuster: I don’t know if it’s the best part of the movie, but I got chills when the soldiers started to see the incoming ships on the horizon.
Goddu: The improvised-stretcher carrying. I loved the urgency of Tommy and the French soldier’s mission coupled with the painfully slow struggle through the crowd on the dock and the eventual anticlimax of their not even making it onto the boat.
Uggetti: For some reason, the part that has stuck with me the most was when Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and the French soldier carried the wounded man in an attempt to get on a ship, set to the tune of shrill violins. It was a fast-paced scene that set the tone for the movie, and ended with Whitehead comically dunking himself in water so that he would appear to be one of the soldiers who came off the sinking ship.
Litman: Identifying a "best" moment is challenging because nearly every minute was tense or fraught in some way. The most relief came when the blond pilot made it out of the the cockpit before drowning. Hard to imagine a worse death.
Ryan: While I deeply enjoyed Tom Hardy bucking the "cool guys don’t look at explosions" trend at the end of the movie, the stretcher race to the doomed medical boat was the most harrowing sequence. Christopher Nolan’s sizzle reel is still on fire from that thing. From the cutting to the framing to the sound to the score to the performances, it was basically a 10-minute film school.
3. What was your least favorite part of the film?
Litman: Dunkirk is as much defined by its absences — the enemy, blood — as by what it did cover. Yet, the lack of historical context of how the British and French ended up trapped on this beach was sorely missed.
Heifetz: Is this the Harry Styles section?
Coley: The part when the torpedo hits the boat and everyone is drowning and squirming and it’s all terrible.
Schuster: RIP, George. You were too pure a soul for war.
Kwak: All the scenes in which soldiers either drown or almost drown. [Shudder.]
Baumann: The shootout inside the grounded boat, particularly when Harry Styles accuses Gibson of being a German spy, felt like it was copy-and-pasted in from a very different, much worse movie.
Gruttadaro: I HAVE NO IDEA HOW OR WHY GEORGE DIED. George was a good boy, he deserved much better.
Ryan: I’m not super into drowning.
Zoladz: The structure. It just didn’t work for me, or it didn’t add up to as meaningful a conclusion as I was hoping — it felt more like an intricate and impressive piece of clockwork than a well-told human story. Fanboys, don’t @ me.
Goddu: The scene at the end of the movie when George finally gets his picture in the local paper felt too saccharine and feel-good, like it was trying to make his death make sense, which it didn’t.
Tjarks: I wish we got to know the characters more. I enjoyed the movie, but I don’t have any desire to watch it again because I wasn’t invested in any of them.
Uggetti: The civilians "saving" Dunkirk was a great part of the story and film, but anything involving the family on the small ship, including George, didn’t really do it for me.
Baker: The part where I was an idiot and didn’t realize that the one guy was Tom Hardy until he landed on the beach and took off his helmet. I felt so cheated out of so much quality time. Separately, I didn’t appreciate the poop cliff-hanger one bit.
Dobbins: I don’t think I disliked anything — this is the benefit of making a 106-minute film, less time to piss people off! — but I really enjoyed watching Kenneth Branagh struggle to meet the somber tone. Your man could NOT keep his Shakespeare in; it’s like you put him in a uniform and St. Crispin’s Day just falls out of his mouth. I love it.
4. The Mole, the Sea, the Air — which timeline were you most invested in?
Ryan: Come on, dog. Dawson family English Channel cruise for life.
Zoladz: The Sea. The claustrophobic setting made the drama feel extra riveting, and Mark Rylance had the kind of assured calm (and impeccable choice in sweaters) that I would certainly trust in wartime.
Kwak: The Sea felt slightly corny; the Air was basically Top Gun: WWII. So the Mole, and its array of high cheekbones, wins by default.
Litman: The Sea. How do you look away from a gaggle of British dreamboats?
Coley: The Sea is Dunkirk: turbulent, overpowering, and anxiety-inducing.
Goddu: The Mole. It felt like the most dangerous place, and therefore the most important one.
Tjarks: The Mole. Watching people try to claw their way to survival is always interesting.
Heifetz: The Mole. Just thinking about the scene in the hull of the ship where they are covering the bullet holes with their hands makes me squirm.
Dobbins: I forgot about the little categories 10 minutes in. Anyway, the answer here is "everyone who makes it onto Mark Rylance’s boat."
Baker: The Sea, I think — it filled me with the most suspense and I really liked their snappy outfits in the face of chaos. (That said, the Air definitely blew my mind the most in a wait, my generation’s pappies actually fought this war sort of way.)
Baumann: The Air. I was sitting in my seat with a gallon of popcorn on my lap, leaning all over the place trying to get Tom Hardy’s plane to bank harder.
Schuster: The Air. The different, small elements that contributed to the urgency of that timeline were great, and the varying shots Nolan used (viewfinder; rearview; and the wide shots that encompassed the sky and sea) were incredible. I could have watched a whole film of that alone.
Uggetti: It was hard not to be interested in the Mole since it seemed to be the main focus, but it was even harder not to be fully invested in Tom Hardy and the Air.
Gruttadaro: It’s extremely hard for me to deny Tom Hardy scribbling down gas levels with a small piece of chalk.
5. This is your safe space to talk about Harry Styles. Go.
Litman: Harry Styles is a solid actor who looks good in olive tones.
Schuster: I was pleasantly surprised! Our boy can act — who knew?
Kwak: Like Christopher Nolan, I was fairly "new to Harry" pre-Dunkirk. Mr. Styles, the actor, acquitted himself very well. In fact, he was the character to whom I related most, since I would likely be just as callous in pursuit of self-preservation under similar circumstances.
Tjarks: He played an ungrateful d-bag well. Good acting and even better casting.
Ryan: There’s a lot of really brilliant stuff in this movie, but making Harry Styles a bit of a prick may be Nolan’s real masterstroke.
Baker: "We gotta get away from here. We gotta get away from here." — Private Alex, jotting stuff down in his journal during a break in the action.
Gruttadaro: I think we might actually be underrating how well Harry Styles is detaching from One Direction.
Baumann: I thought he was good. By leaps and bounds the best English Pop Star Stunt Casting performance of the past two weeks.
Heifetz: A unique wrinkle of Dunkirk is the near-complete anonymity of the characters. We don’t get names or motivations, and that’s the point. With 400,000 men on a beach, no single person seems to matter. Harry Styles ruins that. Nolan admitted he didn’t know how insanely famous Styles is, and I wonder if Nolan would have cast him had he known.
Admittedly, Styles’s acting is great. The problem is you’re occasionally distracted from sheer terror with thoughts like, "Wow, Harry Styles has a magnificent jawline." His presence betrays a film that wants you to forget you’re in a movie theater. (He’s also the second British pop star to commit this sin in the past two weeks.)
Dobbins: Genuinely shocked that he lived that long!
Zoladz: He was good! And I was glad he was able to play a bit of an antihero, too. He definitely wasn’t the most likable in the bunch, but of course I was rooting for him to stay alive because he’s Harry Styles. Also worth noting: Every single person in this movie looked like someone Taylor Swift would date. "Fionn Whitehead" sounds like a human that Taylor Swift willed into existence with her mind.
Uggetti: He was good when he tried to eat the toast with jam and talk at the same time.
6. The turtleneck — who wore it best?
Dobbins: My friend with the chunky maroon situation, for sure.
Litman: Mark Rylance’s son’s red, ribbed sweater is immediately iconic.
Kwak: It’s a close race between the no-nonsense white worn by Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and the wine-colored number sported by Mr. Dawson’s son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney). The tie goes to the guy who has actual human lips.
Gruttadaro: My guy Peter nailed that red turtleneck. Cillian Murphy didn’t even know what to do with himself.
Ryan: The Cinderella team out of Dorset!
Coley: This isn’t even a debate. Tom Glynn-Carney’s "Peter" is one of the greatest turtleneck performances ever captured on film. These impressive Michael Fassbender showings are in the ballpark, but my god, Peter! Is that a wine?
Baker: The dock commander, objectively — but I have a real soft spot for the stoic civilian dad’s kid and his Charlie Bucket vibe.
Zoladz: I will take Peter’s maroon turtleneck in a medium, please. Also, good God almighty can Tom Hardy wear a vintage flight mask.
Goddu: One turtleneck so outshone all the others that it’s the only one I remember: the beautiful maroon one worn by the sailor child.
Baumann: Branagh. Tom Hardy’s turtleneck suffered by comparison with Jack Lowden’s shirt-and-tie flight suit. I’ve never looked as dapper as my dude looked after he emerged from the sea.
Heifetz: Fine — Harry Styles.
7. Did you feel that the ending of ‘Dunkirk’ was earned?
Baker: Yes, and by "the ending of Dunkirk" I’m referring specifically to the stoic civilian dad telling Collins that "they know where you were."
Dobbins: There was a moment about three-quarters through when I thought to myself, "This is a technical masterpiece, but I have no idea how he’s going to end this, and if it’s cut-to-black, I’ll be pissed." It’s a WWII film, so I should’ve guessed Churchill would be involved, but I thought the last eight or so minutes were note-perfect. Moving but not saccharine, final but by no means conclusive. And that shot of Hardy on the beach was plain beautiful.
Goddu: No! A movie about the meaningless violence of war shouldn’t end with a little speech about victory. What I loved about Dunkirk was that it didn’t try to make a neat narrative out of battle. People did heroic things and ended up dying anyway; people did cowardly things and lived. Ending it all with a rousing Churchill speech was an attempt to conjure up meaning that wasn’t (and shouldn’t have been) there.
Heifetz: I felt nothing when George ended up in the newspaper. Maybe that’s more of an indictment of me than the movie itself.
Coley: If by "earned" you mean I thought I was experiencing cardiac arrest at three different points throughout the film, then yes, it was very much "earned."
Schuster: Not entirely, but I also didn’t find it completely jarring. I preferred that they kept the movie at a tight hour and 46 instead of drawing out the full evacuation. Also, it’s history, so we knew we had to get there somehow!
Zoladz: Maybe I wouldn’t feel this way had the movie not been so breathlessly hyped by the time I saw it, but I wanted more. The story with the conclusion that got to me the most was the Air — that mournful, beautifully shot landing and the final image of the plane going up in flames were some of the most poignant moments in the whole film. And I know that this wasn’t a movie aiming for triumphant catharsis at the end — I do admire the un-American boldness of making a war movie not about a hard-won victory but a successful retreat — but I wanted to feel … something more than I did.
Baumann: There’s two ways to feel at the end of the movie: (1) Most everyone you cared about made it out alive and the good guys lived to fight another day; or (2) thousands of others didn’t, and the Nazis are steamrolling across mainland Europe, while poor teenagers like George are dying because they’re too naive to see that the glorious, heroic side of war is a myth. Nolan went with no. 1 and invoked Churchill, but I connected more with no. 2.
Kwak: Well, at least we got to see Tom Hardy’s face for five seconds.
8. Finish the sentence: "Hans Zimmer’s score was …"
Uggetti: … arguably the best part of the movie.
Schuster: … stunning. (But I am a biased Hans fan.)
Litman: … essential to the tension.
Zoladz: … slightly less manipulative than Inception, so we’re getting somewhere.
Kwak: … anxiety-inducing.
Baumann: … bad. Like, distractingly bad. You can evoke tension and anxiety in a film score and actually use real music. I’m amazed that Zimmer and Nolan could make a score-film combo that fit as well as Inception, then turn around and back Dunkirk with something that sounded like they were making fun of Jonny Greenwood in There Will Be Blood.
Gruttadaro: … painful. I may have actually pulled muscles from tensing up. Hans is a god.
Goddu: … appropriately stressful.
Baker: … as GOAT as always.
Heifetz: … like the music from Jaws, if Jaws was about sharks that attacked from the sky.
Ryan: … like Mannheim Steamroller playing Jonny Greenwood’s music from There Will Be Blood.
9. Where does ‘Dunkirk’ rank in Christopher Nolan’s filmography?
Litman: It’s no. 1. Even if The Prestige is more fun and Inception is more challenging, Dunkirk is technically incredible and visually stunning, and it finesses the hallmarks of a Nolan film. It’s an iteration in the best sense. M.C. Escher would be proud.
Ryan: Second! He should just keep making WWII movies.
Baumann: Near wherever The Dark Knight ranks.
Uggetti: Top 3, but behind Inception and Dark Knight, for me.
Coley: Its stunning cinematography and gripping suspense puts it solidly in my Nolan top 3.
Heifetz: It’s a different kind of a movie, but that’s not a fun answer, so safely stick it above The Dark Knight Rises but below everything else.
Tjarks: It was an impressive visual spectacle, but I don’t think it holds up to movies like Memento, Interstellar, and The Prestige.
Baker: I generally rank Nolan movies not by how good they are or how much I enjoy them but by how much time I spend browsing thousands of comments on the /movies subreddit immediately afterward in order to clarify what I just saw. By that very particular rubric, Dunkirk is probably top 5, though maybe not top 3.
10. If you were a soldier at Dunkirk, what would your survival strategy be?
Ryan: Stand as close to Tom Hardy as possible.
Baumann: Join the Air Force.
Schuster: Burying myself under some sand on a remote part of the beach and praying that the screaming German planes didn’t see me.
Baker: Ransacking whatever was left of the village for all available alcohol.
Tjarks: The French guy avoiding the mess hall and standing on the edge of the ship so he would have an easier time bailing was genius. Always give yourself an out.
Zoladz: STOCKPILE THAT DELICIOUS-LOOKING BREAD AND JAM.
Coley: If I were a soldier at Dunkirk, my exit strategy would be to go solo. I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? You made your hits with the band, squeezed some world tours out of it, and made your money. Now, it’s time to make your own mark. So what if the critics don’t like it? You know, deep down in your heart, Zayn is half the talent you are!
Kwak: I’d hide out in one of those Dunkirk apartments the soldiers walked past in the opening scene. Better to get ambushed in a cute French home than be a sitting duck on the beach.
Heifetz: Apparently crashing a plane into the ocean has a 100 percent survival rate.
Uggetti: Anything but the ocean.
11. What would your ‘Dunkirk’ sequel be?
Tjarks: A movie about a person changing over time in response to a dramatic series of events. Set in World War II.
Litman: It would be a prequel about the Battle of the Somme. Devastating trench warfare deserves the Nolan treatment and a masked Tom Hardy appearance.
Baker: A BBC miniseries about the stoic civilian dad.
Zoladz: The same movie, but told in a linear and more emotionally satisfying fashion.
Heifetz: Forgetting George Marshall. In a prequel to the 2008 hit comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Jason Segel plays Secretary of State George Marshall as he negotiates for the economic rehabilitation of Europe — and rehabilitates himself in the process.
Uggetti: Easy. What happens to Tom Hardy after he gets captured? I already preemptively bought the 70MM IMAX ticket for it.
DUNKIRK 2: TOM HARDY’S GREAT ESCAPE!
Baumann: The air combat was so good I could stand to see Nolan tackle the Battle of Britain (perhaps then he’d address how the historical impact of the Spitfire was overrated compared to that of the Hawker Hurricane). But even though this isn’t a sequel, my dream Nolan war movie would be something like A Bridge Too Far, but about the Battle of the Somme.
Goddu: I want to see a movie about what all the French civilians who lived in Dunkirk did. Except, can Christopher Nolan not make it? I’d like one linear timeline and more than four words of dialogue.
Coley: The French soldier who disguised himself as a British soldier comes back from the dead as an all-powerful sea king. It would be called Dunkirk: Poseidon Rises.
Dobbins: Christopher Nolan’s adaptation of Life After Life. IT HAS LIKE 43 TIMELINES, JUST DO IT, CHRIS.