Look, Christopher Nolan could have made a visually majestic, predictably mawkish World War II movie in which klaxons might as well sound when hearing about characters’ at-home lives to determine their certain deaths.

It would certainly placate the complainers’ boring grouse that we don’t get enough of these men’s inner lives. I think that complaint is lodged because the ending of Dunkirk is far more challenging (and emotionally bleak, a la Interstellar) than most people care to wrestle with.

As he often does, Nolan has brought his contemporarily unrivaled visual instincts — here a marriage of Storm Thorgerson’s photographic surreality to David Lean’s cinematic majesty, stunning in both 70mm IMAX and a mall multiplex, to something far less anonymous than most moviegoers would attempt.

What you see is the comma of compassion in a larger Sisyphean story of war; not for nothing does one character begin and end the movie holding propaganda — the latter suggesting salvation at Dunkirk will only earn you another spot on the front line. The regimented ticking clock and repeated raggedness of Hans Zimmer’s score reinforces this; those sounds make you feel like you’re inside the very genetics of music itself, a synesthetic sonata of stress and snapping tension.

Even the bits that seem the most gratuitous (men cooking in fire below the water’s surface) reinforce war as an indomitable force of nature (there, with the oil slick, even at the ecological level).

It’s a work of extraordinary composition, clarity and control that could close on an image of noble sacrifice but instead blips back to a foot soldier … and his nervous realization that while luck may have saved him at Dunkirk, he might have also expelled every last bit of it before the battles to come in British cities, fields and seas. Note how mournful the music is in the moment during which the survivors of Dunkirk march toward salvation.

Nolan wisely blends a mix of recognizable ports of authority and fresh-faced fear, and even more astutely lets them swap emotions (however briefly) in an acknowledgment that war doesn’t change people so much as it does pummel them down to the studs of their true nature. Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy are the most recognizable faces, each with a fine moment or a few, and Harry Styles of One Direction mounts an impressive debut. But it’s the clean-cheeked conscience of Fionn Whitehead on whom Nolan rests his thesis.

Humanity came out ahead that day at Dunkirk, and the movie certainly earns its soaring moments of triumph. But Nolan hardly pretends that vitriol wouldn’t persist (as evidenced by the anonymous “Where were you?” sniping at the downed pilot) or that these men would not more than likely be crushed under a different battle.

Screw the continued cries for more traditional World War II movies and the people who demand them because they’d rather not be challenged with ideologies that go against their “greatest generation” comforts. This is magnetic, magnificent filmmaking of the highest order.