Through experience, a true aikido master pares his movements to the bare minimum, doing just enough to twist and deflect an assailant. It’s mesmerizing to watch such efficiency in action — the lightest touch deals a devastating result. That’s Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.

Faithfully depicting a real military event — the stranding and largely extemporaneous civilian-assisted rescue of some 400,000 allied troops from the French shores in the early months of the Second World War — Dunkirk is split into three stories: One, told from the perspective of troops on the beach, unfolds over a week. Another follows the civilian boats that sailed to effect their rescue, and is told over the period of one day. The third takes place in a single hour, featuring a group of Spitfires waging war in the air. These overlapping stories criss-cross, so the same events unfold at different times and from different perspectives. It’s a clever and effective way to draw in the full scope of the events, without cramming the soldiers’ multi-day ordeal into the span, say, of a single tank of fuel.

That’s all Nolan does here with favorite narrative device: Contortions in time. This is no Interstellar, or Inception. This is the For Your Eyes Only to Nolan’s Moonraker.

Dunkirk is a war movie stripped bare of context and politics, focusing from its first frame on the utter immediacy of conflict. Nolan keeps the cameras close in on his characters; we join them on the beach, at sea, and in the air. It’s incredible what this does: Other filmmakers might be tempted to zoom out and show the full scale of the action. But it’s one thing to see a ship sink from afar, and quite another to be exclusively trapped with men in the hold, or clinging to the side as it capsizes. Nolan doggedly denies us those calming, step-back-and-take-it-in views. We’re right there, in the chaos. It’s loud, punishing, merciless.

While Saving Private Ryan famously did this with its breathless slaughter on Omaha Beach, I can think of no film besides Dunkirk that so effectively and methodically illustrates the parade of awful situations and experiences available in war, at a deeply personal level and yet without any gore to speak of. Dunkirk isn’t a bloody movie — I saw not one open wound — but it is a terrifying one. A man hauling himself up a ship’s superstructure finds himself plunged underwater. The paralyzing shriek of the “trumpets of Jericho” on a Stuka dive-bomber signal imminent attack from above. Circumstance dooms one group of men while sparing another. Nolan shows, time and again, the safe and the perilous spaces in which these men find themselves. Everything else — politics, story, even the identity of the enemy — is meaningless.

Nolan makes a particularly brave choice by making his protagonists less so. We see real men, sometimes facing danger with an outthrust chin, but more commonly squabbling and cheating and sneaking about to jump the queue and escape the beach. “All we did was survive,” one says, and it’s true. True heroism is rare, and when it does appear, is all the more remarkable for it. Dialogue, too, is spare. This is elemental stuff.

(For the record, I couldn’t care less that Britpop sensation Harry Styles is in this, though he does a fine job. Kenneth Branagh is great, and Tom Hardy is transcendent, though.)

When the real Dunkirk evacuations took place in summer 1940, the war was quite young. So you’ll see no rubble-and-ruin war-scapes here; at one point, soldiers pass beachside cafes that might’ve been shuttered the day before. But the worst, everyone knows, is yet to come. In one lingering shot of a Spitfire engulfed in flame, Nolan silently and beautifully distills the foreboding of a steadily escalating conflict, of a massive war still in its early throes.

This drumbeat of dread is only heightened by Hans Zimmer’s music, if you can call it that.

See Dunkirk today, and do it in the biggest, baddest, loudest theatre possible. If you’re lucky enough to have 70mm IMAX playing near you, do whatever it takes to see it there. If not, look for 70mm screenings, which are large-format film and preserve the depth and immediacy of the picture. Following that, choose regular (non-70mm or digital) IMAX, then 35mm film, and last (and least) digital projection. Nolan is one of the few directors who really cares about his film formats, and for a movie that lives and dies by the filmgoing experience itself, you should too.

Dunkirk is perhaps Christopher Nolan’s crowning achievement. World War II is hardly new ground for filmmakers (and even the Dunkirk evacuations played a key role in this year’s excellent Their Finest), yet Nolan makes it immediate and relevant and real. He eschews the gore and the glory and the forced heroics and the trite storylines with love interests and backstories around the fire, and gives us instead probably the most levelheaded and awful depiction of war we’re likely to see.

Haus Verdict: A stunning, simple, spare, and searing tour de force that captures the experience of conflict.

Dunkirk opened Friday, July 21. 

Read CLGJr’s review of Dunkirk!

Never miss a review — sign up for email updates to the right, or like The Parsing Haus on Facebook.