Few films have stripped war down to its terrifying, thrilling essence as Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” and few films have turned war into such an overwhelming, almost physical experience. Eschewing old-fashioned dramatics for state-of-the-art sensory overload, “Dunkirk” is both minimalist and maximalist, dropping us with little preparation into the chaos of World War II. Not all viewers will feel emotionally engaged by this film, but most will exit the theater on wobbly knees.

The French beach of Dunkirk is an unusual locale for a war film: It’s famous less as a battle site than as the place where more than 300,000 defeated Allied troops were rescued by British civilians who sailed across the English Channel to help. That spirit of unselfish heroism is what turned a retreat into a victory, and it’s what keeps Nolan’s film from descending into mere spectacle.

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“Dunkirk” is spectacular, of course, not least in the way it splits historical events into three segments. We spend a weeklong slog on the beach with two soldiers, the strong-willed Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead) and the pessimistic Alex (singer Harry Styles, in an impressive acting debut). We make a day’s journey across the channel in the little ship Moonstone with Mr. Dawson (an indispensable Mark Rylance). And we sit in a Spitfire manned by Royal Air Force pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) during one hour’s worth of harrowing combat against zigzagging Messerschmitts.

All of it unfolds simultaneously, as you might expect from the man behind the mind-bending “Inception.” The results can be confusing — at one point, night and day seem concurrent — but we never get a millisecond of down time to start questioning logistics. Hans Zimmer’s ever-escalating score and Hoyte van Hoytema’s searing cinematography alone would be enough to rivet our attention to the screen.

Nolan takes a bold risk in paring his characters down to their bare-bones humanity: no back stories, no girls at home, no motivations save for survival. (One shellshocked soldier, played by Cillian Murphy, doesn’t even have a name.) This heightens the realism and spares us any gooey sentiment, but it also keeps us from fully knowing the men who live and die. Still, one brave little sailor, George (Barry Keoghan), truly tugs at our hearts, while Kenneth Branagh, as naval Commander Bolton, manages to convey strong emotions with barely any dialogue at all. He’s the one who looks across the channel and utters the word that gives Dunkirk its most powerful symbolism: “Home.”