Netflix Spotlight: why Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is the perfect primer for Oppenheimer

A still from the movie Dunkirk in which one of the soldier characters looks out onto the beach amidst fighting and destruction.
(Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

With Oppenheimer, the next movie from director Christopher Nolan, premiering in cinemas on July 24, now is the perfect time to revisit his last WW2 drama, Dunkirk, which is available to watch on Netflix in the US, or Prime Video in the UK, and Binge in Australia.

Despite recent trailers for Oppenheimer revealing stronger hints of what to expect from the three-hour epic about the creator of the atomic bomb, they still don't tell you a ton about what kind of cinematic experience it's going to be overall.

But if you want to get in the general vibe of the movie, I'd recommend a rewatch of Dunkirk, not just because I think it'll be on the same kind of wavelength, but because it's a great watch generally to rival the best Netflix movies on the service, and is one of Nolan's shortest movies at 106 minutes including credits.

Dunkirk is about the evacuation of British soldiers from the beach at the French town of Dunkirk, as the German forces close in rapidly around them. Large warships couldn't be used because they were sitting ducks for artillery, so with only a limited amount of time before British soldiers would be overrun, a fleet of small civilian boats launched from the UK instead. These were harder to hit and easier to bring close to shore.

The actual movie is about what it was like for each 'front' of this mission, and it's split into three sub-plots: one follows a solider on the beach, one follows a boat from the civilian fleet, and one follows an Air Force pilot supporting the operation.

Each of these plots takes place over a different length of time, even though they're dispersed evenly throughout the movie. The pilot's whole journey lasts only half an hour or so, the boat's journey takes place over about a day, and the poor solider on the beach is waiting nearly a week.

The movie cuts between them in way that builds tensions ingeniously, because the faster sub-plots tease what's the come for the slower ones. The Air Force pilot passes a smoking boat that's very familiar, the boat picks up a shell-shocked soldier who we've only seen as a confident commander on the beach. As the movie goes on, all off the different threads weave together, catching up to each other, and bringing characters to one peak of tension.

A still from the movie Dunkirk in which a soldier stood on the beach is staring into the distance.

The face of a man who really is not having a nice day at the beach. (Image credit: Warner Bros Pictures)

Ah, the tension. That's the masterpiece touch of Dunkirk. Because you get teasers of the future from the different plots, you feel helpless to watch characters you like heading inevitably towards the chaos of future battles. But then, that doesn't always seem worse than the chaos they currently find themselves in. Perhaps being on a smoking boat is better than being dive bombed on a beach, where you're totally exposed and just have to watch the long slow descent of a plane coming to destroy you.

And aside from the obvious WW2 connection between Dunkirk and Oppenheimer, I expect it's this kind of tension over inevitability that Oppenheimer will play with. The movie arrives carrying dramatic irony on its shoulders like Atlas holding up the Earth – we all know how nuclear weapons have changed and terrified the world following the events that Oppenheimer is going to show us.

But on top of that, it's also clear that the movie is going to play with different time periods (because it wouldn't be a Nolan movie if it didn't). The black and a white scenes with Robert Downey Jr seem to be from a hearing happening after the development of the bomb, and I expect these will be dotted throughout the movie – we'll see the political fallout (no pun intended) of decisions being made during the movie, and we'll see why they're being made, even if they'll be ruinous.

In much the same way that the German army's advance puts a ticking clock of constantly ramping pressure on the characters in Dunkirk, the trailer suggests that his terror at the idea of the Nazis getting the atomic bomb first is pushing Oppenheimer towards desperate measures and decisions. And we'll already know difficult the result of those decisions will be, either from our lives, or from these glimpses of the future.

While Oppenheimer is set to be a meaty feast of a historical biography, I think Dunkirk should make for the ideal starter, teasing what's to come. And if I'm wrong, you watched a great movie anyway, it's a win-win. Well, not for some of the characters in Dunkirk, but still.

If you're looking for more movie options on the world's best streaming service, check out our list of new Netflix movies recently added to the platform.

Matt Bolton
Managing Editor, Entertainment

Matt is TechRadar's Managing Editor for Entertainment, meaning he's in charge of persuading our team of writers and reviewers to watch the latest TV shows and movies on gorgeous TVs and listen to fantastic speakers and headphones. It's a tough task, as you can imagine. Matt has over a decade of experience in tech publishing, and previously ran the TV & audio coverage for our colleagues at, and before that he edited T3 magazine. During his career, he's also contributed to places as varied as Creative Bloq, PC Gamer, PetsRadar, MacLife, and Edge. TV and movie nerdism is his speciality, and he goes to the cinema three times a week. He's always happy to explain the virtues of Dolby Vision over a drink, but he might need to use props, like he's explaining the offside rule.