I was lucky enough to just get out of an advance screening for Dunkirk just a few minutes ago and thought I'd write up a short review of the movie for those of you who are interested in the period, but are unsure about spending the money to see it in theaters. I will point out that I do like most of Christopher Nolan's work, so if you aren't, you should likely take this review with a grain of salt.
The movie revolves around the experiences of six "main" characters during the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the port of Dunkirk, France. A very unique aspect of the narrative is that it is told in three distinct parts - 1. The Mole - One Week (referring to the eastern sea wall Capt. William Tennant used as a makeshift pier), 2. The Sea - One Day, & 3. The Air - One Hour. At first, it's very confusing about what exactly is going on as events in each "part" don't always occur linearly. While it eventually becomes apparent how each "part" is laid out sequentially, the key is referring to the subtitle of each "part". The characters' experiences in The Mole take one week, in The Sea one day, and in The Sky one hour. I really enjoyed this aspect of the narrative, since it wasn't something I'd seen used successfully since Pulp Fiction.
Without giving away too many spoilers, the plot seems to be very factual and, for the most part, does follow the overall historical event quite closely. Obviously, this being modern cinema, there are some fabrications and anachronisms, but nothing that takes you out of the movie. The one criticism I would have is that the defense of the Dunkirk perimeter isn't really shown and the danger of being truly surrounded is only hinted at. I feel like if Nolan were to have focused on this more in the prologue, that casual viewers would really get a better sense of how dire the situation truly was. Nolan does, however, do an amazing job of ramping up the tension - not too fast, not too slow.
The visuals are absolutely stunning. In a year where CGI-laden, post-processed movies are the norm, it was fantastic to see a movie that (to my eye) relied on no CG special effects. The aerial dogfights in particular are the star of the show and, if you're a plane buff, I urge you to go see the movie in cinema format - the planes are gorgeous, especially against the backdrop of grey skies and green-blue ocean. Nolan also captures the opposing dread of being caught wide open on a beach or stuck inside the hold of a sinking ship.
The acting is top notch....with my one big criticism of the movie being that the dialogue was often unintelligible. I wasn't sure if that was an audio issue or intentional on part of the crew (or as part of the narrative). Casual viewers are going to have a very difficult time understanding what orders are being given as, even with a good idea of military orders, even I had a tough time trying to decipher what was actually said. Tom Hardy plays Spitfire pilot Farrier...but he's really just channeling a WW2 version of Mad Max (which, having loved Fury Road, I was totally OK with). Mark Rylance as small boat captain Mr. Dawson is probably the stand-out actor as he does an amazing job acting a wide variety of emotions, often non-verbally (if you like him in this and like historical dramas, I also recommend checking out his role as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall. While I didn't love the series - period dramas about British royalty are more my wife's passion - I did like his portrayal.
The sound (except for the dialogue) was also fairly good. The Stukas, while having their tell-tale diving drone, also have an odd, slightly unnerving shriek as they level off. Gunshots and explosions are deafening, and are well contrasted by the quiet beaches (early on) and the crashing waves (later).
All in all, I'd say - unless you truly hate Nolan's work - go see it in theaters. It's worth it and, if it grosses highly enough, will hopefully prompt the studios to do more of these types of historical action dramas.