Dunkirk

dunkirk_ver2STARS3.5Dunkirk celebrates a wartime retreat. As such, it may seem like an odd moment in the history of WWII to dramatize. To Americans whose familiarity with WWII begins with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it’s an event with which most U.S. citizens are unaware. Yet the battle holds a special uplifting significance to British and French troops. It concerns the evacuation of Allied soldiers that were under fire from German troops. The locale was the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk, a city in the north of France. Hundreds of civilian boats carrying survivors were able to make it across the English Channel, under German fire, and back again.  The evacuation was such an amazing defense of life that it’s often referred to as the Miracle at Dunkirk. Its importance is best summarized in an eleventh-hour exchange here in the film:  When one well wisher offers a sincere “Well done,” the soldier’s response is “All we did was survive.” “That’s enough,” offers the passersby. The encounter was a testament to the perseverance of the human spirit.

As a work of art, Dunkirk is a sensory composition. Christopher Nolan creates an intense optical and auditory experience that feels like the real thing. Sound and visuals combine to give the viewer a wartime understanding unlike any other. The director’s preference for practical effects at the expense of CGI is well documented. The manifestation never once seems like anything less than the real thing.  The cinematography and  the music combine to fabricate a wartime experience like none other. Much of Dunkirk has been shot using IMAX cameras and makes use of the widescreen format. If you’re lucky enough to live in one of the 31 cities equipped with such a screen, then I’d strongly advise you to seek out one of these showings as the presentation is much improved. I saw the film twice, in both 35mm and 70mm IMAX and the difference is enough to recommend the latter and condemn the former. The graphics are awe inspiring in both, but the impact is significantly marginalized in the non-70mm format.

Director Christopher Nolan is solely credited with the screenplay. He has fashioned the chronicle as a somewhat confusing muddle of action. Three separate stories that each take place by land, sea and air, transpiring over three different time frames. Title cards in the beginning give the viewer an assist in grasping what will transpire. The auteur is well known for playing with time, but here it works to the detriment of the narrative. Nolan takes risky liberties in telling a linear story. These different timelines are confusingly edited with flashbacks that revisit previous scenes sometimes from a new perspective.  When a character leaves one account and pops up in another tale, interpreting the timelime can get a bit dicey.   Nolan’s technique hinders our ability to comprehend what is happening when.

“The Mole” is a somewhat puzzling title card that refers to the land story. I wonder how many people will realize that a mole is a massive structure used as a pier. Its double meaning as a spy is probably intentional, but I wish I had known that bit of information beforehand. This drama takes place over a week and concerns a young British soldier (Fionn Whitehead) stranded on the beach, who must find a way off this ill-fated stretch of land. The area has filled up with thousands of British Expeditionary Force fighting men. The Germans are closing in. Kenneth Branagh plays a naval commander and James D’Arcy is an army colonel.  They search the skies for the enemy Germans and await an air rescue effort that does not materialize.

“The Sea” is one day in the life of Mr. Dawson, as portrayed by Mark Rylance, the only actor allowed to actually give a “performance”. He is a civilian sailor throwing himself into the rescue effort by steering his tiny wooden yacht called Moonstone, along with his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a local boy (Barry Keoghan) eager to take part in something bigger than himself.  Actor Cillian Murphy plays a stranded survivor they pick up along the way.

“The Air” is the third tale and takes place over an hour.  Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy are pilots for the Royal Air Force Spitfire.  Fans of Hardy’s handsome features will surely be disappointed. His face is obscured by a mask for almost the entire duration of the picture. Additionally, it’s impossible to understand anything he says. But oh those dogfight sequences!  They are some of the most impressive demonstrations in the entire picture.

Dunkirk is a film about spectacle. It soars with gorgeous cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema that is breathtakingly expansive even when it’s detailing claustrophobic conditions of a ship in battle. Seas of young, white British soldiers huddled in the hull of a ship. An unknown assailant begins firing upon their vessel. The scene is indeed intense. Yet these men become almost indistinguishable from each other. We cannot connect to these people individually.  I suppose that’s not the point. Nolan’s study is a film about a war effort that forces us into a mass of anonymity. The profusion of humanity is a wash of gray-brown uniforms. The absence of color is a common motif that comes up over and over. Indeed the only red we see is not blood but the jam on the bread the soldiers eat in the hull of a ship. This makes Dunkirk a saga that’s emotionally distant.  Yet what it lacks in compelling stories it makes up for in bombast. Hans Zimmer’s score is loud and blaring and cacophonous as it emphasizes the visual display being witnessed. It’s rousing to be sure even when it drowns out the dialogue.

Conversation is held to a bare minimum. Dunkirk is a feature built upon the very exhibition of war, not upon the chatty developments that usually compel an adventure forward. The bits of talking here and there are rendered unintelligible by thick British accents that I assume only people familiar with regional dialects will recognize. I couldn’t understand most of what was being said. It’s not a deal breaker though. The script is conversationally sparse. Dunkirk is not reliant on discourse It extracts passion out of a circumstance.

Dunkirk’s greatest attribute is how it sidesteps all of the cliches of the “war movie”. This is not a traditional war epic. It’s a film that features very little in the way of exposition. If you’re waiting for a scene where the soldier talks about his girl back home, you’re watching the wrong account. Don’t expect to find a declaration from a disillusioned character outwardly expressing the horrors of war.  Other than distant planes flying overhead, we never even see the enemy. Dunkirk isn’t about dialogue, or performances, or a sentimental bond to people, or even one to emphasize the bloody viscera of war.  Although the action is most definitively a visceral experience. It’s the narrative as a sequence of “you-are-there” action setpieces that begin almost immediately and never let up until the end of the production. First, you’re on the beach, then in the cockpit, now you’re aboard Rylance’s ship. The thrill is so immediate it’s practically physical. It’s explosions and aerial photography and gray masses of huddled individuals trying to survive. You will understand the suspense, fear, and dread of what it would be like to endure war, but without that emotional connection to the actual people.

07-20-17

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22 Responses to “Dunkirk”

  1. This is a review that matches how spectacular I thought the movie was. You have simply nailed it my friend!

    Where we differ is where you say cold and distant, I see a calmly objective, borderline journalistic approach. This unflinching observational power is backed by the film’s intentionally thunderous (maybe OTT) sound design and it gives Dunkirk this, granted odd, clinical feel that really makes the horror of war felt. I don’t think this is a (war) film where a direct, deep connection to any character, particular or at all, is necessary in order to latch on to the message here. The chaos of war is hell. I felt that way more than the overall story which was about the incredible rescue.

    • “Calmly objective” is a very good way to put it. Christopher Nolan’s take is non-propagandistic. There is value in an approach that favors a more dispassionate than overly emotional POV. It just took me by surprise on the first watch. I warmed up more to the idea on the second.

  2. smilingldsgirl Says:

    It reminded me of the Civil War reenactments they have where I grew up. The focus is on reenacting the conflict not on characters. I thought it was kind of a cool idea for a film. I didnt know that about mole. I thought it was mole like a spy because of the French spy. Learn something new everyday

    • I’m so used to traditional narratives that it took me awhile to warm up to Christopher Nolan’s perspective. It is rather innovative what he does here. Upon reflection, I really appreciate the break from convention.

      • smilingldsgirl Says:

        Yeah I agree. Something new and fresh. I think the length helped. If it had been close to 3 hours I might have grown weary of the technique

      • Agreed. The short length was appreciated. Also, the complete lack of any real gore (explosions but no carnage) was new and fresh as well.

      • smilingldsgirl Says:

        True. Good point

  3. Nice review. For me, I felt very much connected with the characters, not so much from a deeply personal perspective but from the shared experience angle. I think that’s one the many masterful things Nolan pulls off. He doesn’t get into backstories, relationships, etc. he sets us down in this pressure cooker next to these people then allows us to experience it all with them. That’s why I felt for them – because I felt I had been right their with them.

    • I see your point. This “shared experience” does provide a connection to these soldiers. The feelings are so intense and the idea of having gone through this struggle with them (by watching the movie) you do get some a kinship with them as people.

  4. I appreciate the craftsmanship, loved the score (as loud as it is), but I think my overall thoughts are close to yours. It was immersive…but I didn’t expect it to be that emotionally distant. However, it was nice to not see so much carnage, we know it’s present without actually seeing it.

    Good movie, but I’m struggling to write about (probably won’t) it or find the desire to watch again, honestly.

    • I did enjoy it MUCH more when I saw it on 70mm IMAX.

      A film that immediately grabs you the first time is better than one you have to rewatch multiple times to appreciate. However, I had a bad theater experience (which I didn’t even bother to mention until just now) the first time. I think that unfairly affected my enjoyment of the film so I felt like I had to give it another chance.

      This was such a powerful experience the 2nd time.

      • Good to know! Don’t know if I’ll be able to catch on 70mm, but I will try. Sounds like this demands to be watched on the best level and it will suffer if it doesn’t.

  5. My sympathies with your problems understanding the British regional accents. On this side of The Pond, we have the same problem with many American films. Two nations separated by a common language……

    • Snatch is probably the hardest movie for American English speakers to understand but Trainspotting and Attack the Block are pretty difficult too.

      I’m curious now. What American movies have confusing dialogue for UK speakers?

  6. It’s difficult to generalise, but if there is a pattern, it’s probably films set in the South/SouthWest; but there can be bits of dialogue in any American film that elude me (especially if delivered by Matthew McConaughy!). Eg: last night, we caught up with The Butler on dvd – mainly no problem, but some of the early dialogue was a bit tricky for our ears. It can be exacerbated by the fashion for “realistic” (mumbling) delivery by actors. TV is just as difficult; I loved the series of The Wire and True Detectives, but probably understood about half of the dialogue.

  7. I saw the film yesterday. I agree that it’s a director’s and cinematographer’s film, rather than an actor’s film. But while the action scenes were well done, I confess to coming away with a feeling of slight disappointment; I didn’t feel that I had witnessed something truly innovative or ‘special.’ So, for me it was a three-star movie, rather than the five-star reviews I’ve read in the newspapers and magazines here.

    • I completely underdtand your critique. Dunkirk is more a film about an experience than one with a strong narrative. How you watch the film will make a BIG difference and in some ways, that’s a drawback to the strength of the film.

  8. As you know , I saw this twice too. IMAX was 10 times better. Mad that I had to see it twice, but was glad I did. Such a big difference. It’s a four star movie for me. Such a spectacle.

  9. This film really blew me away. I’ve seen it twice now and would see it again. I can’t really fault it!

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