IMAX in a Spitfire

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With Dunkirk, director Christopher Nolan turns from comic-book heroes to historical ones.

In an age of of weightless digital wizardry, Christopher Nolan’s films—from The Dark Knight to Interstellar—bring a hefty sense of visceral reality to otherwise fantastical premises. This summer, however, Nolan will apply those good, old-fashioned analog skills to an epic grounded in history. Dunkirk (opening July 21), Nolan’s tenth feature, will depict one of the greatest rescues of World War II: Operation Dynamo, when over 300,000 Allied forces were evacuated across the English Channel as the Nazis closed in on them.

Reports from the set indicate Nolan was fanatical in his quest for authenticity. Filming on the actual Dunkirk beaches in France where the rescue took place, Nolan enlisted 6,000 extras, a French naval destroyer, and, purportedly, a $5 million Spitfire to re-create the action. He supposedly destroyed the vintage plane, with IMAX cameras attached to it, for the film’s climax. The director even used facades of vehicles and cutouts of soldiers rather than resort to CGI. But Nolan’s biggest gamble may be his casting: While he’s peppered the marquee with the usual high-caliber British thespians—Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, and Kenneth Branagh, to name a few— he chose newcomer Fionn Whitehead for his lead. Nolan reportedly felt it was essential to convey the inexperience of the real Dunkirk soldiers. What better way to capture that than by entrusting a first-timer with a $100 million–plus film?

Nolan’s operation should make for a refreshing change of pace among the superheroes and CGI talking animals of summer: an epic that hopes to demonstrate how truth can be more fantastic than fiction.