Second only perhaps to the prestige biopic, every filmmaker, actor, and other Hollywood hanger-on seeking the mantle of “serious artist” has turned his or head to the hellscape that was World War II. That specific trajectory assumes greater importance for those who established their names on popcorn-fueled blockbusters and action heroism. Even cinema’s mainstream iconoclasts have found reservoirs of inspiration in the European theater and “Natzi”-killing. The conflict proving that its predecessor had neither made the world completely safe for democracy nor ended all wars is tailor-made for silver screen appraisal. The villains were worse than any screenwriter could conjure. The settings crisscrossed continental Europe, North African deserts, the great oceans, and the deep blue skies. Is there any wonder that over 1300 movies have used its narrative to extract the best from the business?

Christopher Nolan takes this heritage seriously with his true magnum opus, “Dunkirk.” Very seriously. Just as his spiritual predecessor Steven Spielberg used the Second World War to break free of aliens and dinosaurs, Nolan invites us to witness his directorial prowess unburdened by comic book flash or CGI wizardry. And witness you should. “Dunkirk” is, hands down, the best genre entry since “Saving Private Ryan.” I might even wager that it’s better.

Leaflets raining down upon deserted streets announce that Germany has pushed Allied forces to the beaches of Dunkirk, France. By late May 1940, British leadership decided there was no choice but evacuation. Removing over 300,000 soldiers by sea was as probable at the time as the United States suiting up for battle. “Dunkirk” painstakingly walks us through the strategies, sacrifices, and sheer luck that produced the miracle. For those gripped by anxiety watching young men laid low on the beaches of Normandy in, what remains, the gold standard battle scene, be prepared for its feature-length version.

Never one who adheres to tradition, Nolan makes a conspicuously unconventional choice. His screenplay never reveals its secrets—or even its basic shape—too soon. We are dropped into the action as if in a first-person RPG, knowing only that the situation is beyond dire. Shots ring out with distressing naturalism, and bombs often fall without a sense of place or time. The audience is both completely aware of what they are viewing and feverishly unsure of the rhyme or reason. This sense of knowing ignorance is what elevates “Dunkirk” into the contemporary pantheon.

Nolan and his “Interstellar” director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema somehow bagged the supreme beauty of spume wavering in the breeze, a German fighter plunging to its marine cemetery, and even a bombed destroyer slowly tipping on its side like a drunken sailor. The pacing is relentless and backed by a Hans Zimmer score flecked with ticking clocks and bitter strings. (No true BRAAMs were used in the making of this movie.) As with all of Nolan’s non-Caped Crusader offerings, “Dunkirk” celebrates non-linearity. What appear to be three chapters are really three interconnected settings (“The Mole,” “The Sea,” and “The Air.”) Those intersections might have been played up for reveal shock value; Nolan wisely avoids that increasingly cheap trick. Instead, their connective tissue binds seemingly disparate efforts at avoiding more catastrophic loss of life.

No performance justly deserves lead status. Fionn Whitehead commands most of the attention as the young, scrappy Brit seeking refuge from the slaughter. His story parallels the exploits of the prototypical Maverick and Goose RAF pilots Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy) as well as the unimaginable valor of ordinary citizen Mr. Dawson (a sympathetic yet strong Mark Rylance). Nolan regular Cillian Murphy plays a tortured solider, and Kenneth Branagh expertly scowls at the heavens. Fear not: Mr. Styles neither sends up “Glitter”-level dreck nor achieves the recent plaudits of Janelle Monáe in “Moonlight” or “Hidden Figures.”

If forced to chastise Mr. Nolan, I would issue a demerit to the sound mixing department. He and his crew still have not figured out how to overload the auditory sense and allow us to appreciate the dialogue. As if trolling critics everywhere, he even forces Mr. Hardy to speak three-quarters of his lines through Farrier’s fighter pilot mask. One would be forgiven for thinking she heard “Speak of the devil and he shall appear” during a tense dogfight. On the other hand, Nolan deserves bounteous credit for the teetering balance he maintains between gravitas and gloom. Spielbergian levity is barely noticeable. Even the soldiers’ rousing cheers feel earned rather than calculated.

Awe and intricacy have long been Christopher Nolan’s calling cards. Before “Dunkirk,” he employed them to dazzle us along cinematic Penrose stairs. Now their force serves a greater calling: reshaping the war epic. What could have been an irredeemable career folly turned into a mystical rendering of our most last brush with global calamity. “Dunkirk” will rightly disarm anyone still questioning Nolan’s filmmaking bona fides. He wants our blessing as an auteur without resort to plot gimmicks. He has mine.

CLGJr Verdict: An early contender for the year’s best picture. In a genre beset by tired storytelling and emotional fatigue, Nolan has re-energized the war movie. The one-time wunderkind has become the auteur. Don’t miss this uncompromising and unflinching masterpiece.      

Dunkirk opens Friday, July 21.

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