One of the most indelible images in “Dunkirk,” Christopher Nolan’s brilliant new film, is of a British plane in flames. The movie recounts an early, harrowing campaign in World War II that took place months after Germany invaded Poland and weeks after Hitler’s forces started rolling into the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. The plane, having glided to a stop, has been defiantly set ablaze by the pilot to avoid its being captured. It’s an image of unambiguous defeat but also an emblem of resistance and a portent of the ghastly conflagrations still to come.
It’s a characteristically complex and condensed vision of war in a movie that is insistently humanizing despite its monumentality, a balance that is as much a political choice as an aesthetic one. And “Dunkirk” is big — in subject, reach, emotion and image. Mr. Nolan shot and mostly finished it on large-format film (unusual in our digital era), which allows details to emerge in great scale. Overhead shots of soldiers scattered across a beach convey an unnerving isolation — as if these were the last souls on earth, terminally alone, deserted. (Seen on a television, they would look like ants.) Film also enriches the texture of the image; it draws you to it, which is crucial given the minimalist dialogue.