Christopher Nolan’s name has become synonymous with brilliant and cerebral science-fiction films ever since breaking on the scene with the masterfully crafted “Memento” in 2000. He followed that with the epic Dark Knight trilogy, “Inception,” and most recently “Interstellar” in 2014.

Suffice to say, when he made the decision to give nonfiction a try regarding one of the most pivotal and heroic stories from the British perspective of World War II, it conjured images of “Saving Private Ryan,” and I braced myself for a gripping story filled with graphic images and sensational acting.  

A refreshingly unknown cast (besides three noticeable Oscar-winning/nominated actors in very unassuming roles) takes us back to 1940, when the British allied troops were trapped against the English Channel, pressured by the axis powers from all sides, pushing them as fish into a barrel for the Germans to strafe and bomb. Their only hope is evacuation by sea, but with their Navy decimated by German bombers and U-Boats, all hope falls on the civilian naval corps to cross the scant 50 miles separating the soldiers and their homes.

Right off the bat, it was clear that this would be a film of action and not dialogue. Nolan did a tremendous job using music and setting to paint the picture of desperation and plight. Dialogue is sparse, which serves the story perfectly. Understated acting draws the viewer’s attention to the tense and harrowing score (by Hans Zimmer) which will be a difficult one to beat on Oscar night. Particularly interesting is the ticking of a stopwatch that continues essentially from start to finish, amplifying the desperation and urgency. Attention is paid to the slightest details from start to finish, with every single frame and sequence intentionally shot. It was almost too intentional, too framed.

That doesn’t take away from the beauty and awe at all, but at times I felt that the film was taking the easy way out and was a bit too conservative in its approach to war despite the full-immersion and gripping beauty. Additionally, the PG-13 rating eliminated any bit of violence or blood, which left a much smaller impact on me as a viewer. I’m not saying I was hoping for violence, but it definitely adds effect. It was “Saving Private Ryan” light in a nutshell.

Broken into segments of sea, air and land, we bounce back and forth, following individuals who represent the collective in different perspectives; a civilian sailor (Mark Rylance), a fighter pilot (Tom Hardy) and a trio of soldiers who will do just about anything to get home (Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles). This diversity shows the different struggles, and are even shot with different color hues if you’re paying attention. Everyone is a hero in his own way, yet the heroism isn’t glamorized and is subtle and tasteful in preserving the realism.

What I couldn’t quite gauge from the film was the true number of soldiers either killed or rescued. They mention numbers throughout, but the camera never shows groups as large as I was expecting. There were almost a half a million soldiers on the beach, with roughly 85 percent rescued, and that sheer miracle wasn’t punctuated nearly well enough, nor could I envision that many during the climactic rescue. The small bands of pilots, sailors, and infantry were the focal points throughout, which lessened the grandeur and epic scale that could have been. Nolan is a consummate professional, and uses deliberate and minimalist scenes to tell stories with incredible depth, but I never quite was able to visualize 400,000 British in peril.

 “Dunkirk” is a fantastic story wrought with heroism, sacrifice, fear and drama. Nolan clearly had this passion project on his mind for some time, and I can’t find any flaw in his depiction. Maybe I was expecting more violence, and for that I was a bit caught off guard. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, but it definitely could have presented more tension or struck a deeper nerve.

The film is of very high quality and an exceptional story. I, for one, welcome more nonfiction from Nolan. Although his science-fiction is pretty awesome too.