Nolan sheds any pretense of caring about developed characters or emotional narratives and delivers a film that functions entirely, even singularly, as a vehicle for plot. I won't speak to whether or not Dunkirk is Nolan's best film, but I will say that it is the most Nolan film I've seen yet.
Dunkirk is yet another demonstration of Nolan's fascination with manipulating time to turn an already fine story into a gimmick. The manipulation of time in this film might be the most egregious yet; instead of using it as a plot twist, Nolan uses it as a way of conflating the stories as equals, giving the audience the feeling that they are happening simultaneously when in fact it's the opposite. It feels entirely dishonest and not at all successful.
Still, the film does admirable work regarding the use of nonverbal communication and visual language. Unlike many of Nolan's movies that lean heavily exposition, Dunkirkexhibits an astounding lack of dialogue. I'm not sure how much credit Nolan himself is owed here, given that the story of Dunkirk is lodged so clearly into the cultural lexicon...nonetheless, it's worth noting. It's really inspiring to me that large, mainstream audiences are turning out en mass to a film without much dialogue at all.
However, none of that visual language provides the film with emotional depth or characterization, so the film ends up feeling like an extended montage of the machinations of war rather than the genuine emotional experiences of soldiers.
I admire Nolan's dedication to demonstrate technical proficiency, and Dunkirk no doubt does this, however I still left the theater feeling entirely unmoved.
I've seen a lot of people comment on how drained they felt after watching this and I wish I shared that experience. However, if you take away the film's score, there's almost no real tension. Hans Zimmer's score literally adds a thumping heart and racing clock to a movie that lacks either. Nolan is so caught up in conveying the plot of several different stories that he never adequately develops the tension necessary to make them compelling.
Moreover, it's difficult for me to ignore the film's perspective on war. For me, the best war films are those that condemn it. Dunkirk circles this message by depicting the horrors of war, but the movie's final minutes strip away this narrative and replace it with a rallying cry. It ends up feeling like an extended recruitment video for the army which has all sorts of uncomfortable implications.
Not to drag this on, but it's almost disappointing to me that of all films to stir up the theatrical versus streaming debate, it's this one. I saw a 70mm print of this on a massive screen and it's just frustrating, both as a visual experience and exhibition of the power of the film medium. The film isn't pretty and Nolan does very little to enhance the visuals in a way that would actually warrant attitude that "this movie must be seen in a theater!!"
The highlight of the film for me was Mark Rylance, who brings a subtle nuance and rousing heart to his role.