Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Film Review: Dunkirk

Sexuality/Nudity No Objection 
Violence Mature
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

If Christopher Nolan does not get an Oscar nomination for Best Director, nothing will.

Dunkirk is a marvel of cinematic storytelling once again proving that Nolan is one of the best artists behind the camera working today.

The movie once again uses Nolan's signature obsession with multiple and overlapping timelines to tell the story of the retreat at Dunkirk.  The Allied forces were pushed back by the Nazis all the way to the coast of France at Dunkirk.  Nearly 400, 000 men were stranded on the beaches there.  Assembling on the beach left them open to the German air force.  The large military destroyer ships were prone to attack from the air and from u-boats under the sea.  The British military held back much of its navy and air force in preparation of the inevitable Battle of Britain.  As a result, civilian ships were called in to help with the evacuation.

In this movie, Nolan interweaves three convergent storylines.

1.  Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is a young British soldier who falls in with another soldier (Damien Bonnard) as they make several attempts to finagle their way onto any ship taking them off the beach.  During this time the encounter Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D'Arcy) and come to understand how desperate their situation is.  Their story plays out over several days at Dunkirk.

2.  Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) is a British citizen who answers the call for rescue boats.  He sets off to Dunkirk with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his friend George (Barry Keoghan).  Along the way they pick up a drifting shivering soldier (Cillian Murphy) who is shell shocked and does not want to return to Dunkirk.  Their story takes place over one day.

3.  Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Loweden) are RAF pilots who, with almost no other support, must fend off the German Air force threatening escaping Dunkirk.  This story takes place over the course of a single hour.

If that sounds confusion, don't worry it really isn't.  Nolan understands that the human mind longs for complexity in its stories but he also understands that the human mind doesn't want to be too frustrated.  He messes with the converging timelines primarily to create suspense and tension.

This might be Nolan's best work in terms of purely visual storytelling.  Hardly a word is said throughout most of the movie.  In fact, it wouldn't be too far off to see Dunkirk as a silent movie.  Or at the very least it carries with it the principle of telling the story with the bare minimum of dialog.  In Tommy's sequence, I don't think he or his friend say a single line for the first forty minutes.  Instead, Nolan wants you to follow them with your eyes.  Nolan is one of the few directors working at his level who trusts his audience to keep up with him.  Rather than have Tommy and his friend have a long conversation about how to sneak onto a boat, he shows us how come across an injured man on a stretcher who has been abandoned on the beach and takes it from there.

The colors of the film help set its tone.  The soldiers languish in a washed-out blue-gray purgatory of despair.  They are exposed and helpless with only the strange sea foam for cover.

And the threat is always there and impending.  Nolan takes a cue from Jaws and barely ever shows us the invading force, but they are there all the time.  We can hear them always surrounding.  While I said this movie had a silent film aesthetic, it use of sound is masterful.  Not only is the score tense and powerful, but the shock and violence of the sound effects makes us feel the oppression of that unseen fear.  And his use of the watch ticking is the most effective I've heard in a film.

Nolan traps us into his characters' perspectives in such an effective way.  One of the things that he did better than in any movie I've seen is capture the claustrophobia of air battles.  Often in films we get to stand outside and watch the exciting movements of the planes throughout the three-dimensional space in which they fight.  But Nolan forces you into that cockpit where your field of vision is so limited and you don't know if you are alone in the sky or if an enemy is closing in.

This movie does have a drawback and it is not insignificant: it lacks heart.  What I mean by this is that there is an intentional absence of all things resembling sentiment from the film.  As we saw in Interstellar, Nolan is perfectly capable of tugging at the heartstrings.  But for Dunkirk, he assiduously avoids them.  It would be wrong to say that the movie is unemotional or callous.  The emotions of fear, sadness, and desperation are powerful and intense.  Many of the soldiers on the beach at Dunkirk were strangers who fall in together for an intense experience.  But because of that, they never really form strong emotional bonds to each other.  The same is true of the audience.  You care about many of the characters on a human level, but not a personal level.  I honestly could not tell you the names of most of the main characters from memory.  And much of the dialogue was difficult to hear.

I think that Nolan wants this distance because he wants to remove these men from the audience's judgment.  Some of them do some horrible things through the course of the movie.  But Nolan never casts judgment on their horrible actions.  Instead, he simply shows you the horror they endure and reminds you that war is hell.

And that isn't to say that he doesn't show great heroism at the same time.  Rylance's Dawson has such an understated nobility that it is hard to define.  Dawson is tenacious and daring and pushes his crew because "We might be able to help!"  He is an ordinary man with extraordinary character.  Farrier also has to often put his courage to the sticking place.  And the last shot of Bolton in the movie stands as an emblem of iconic valor.  In fact, the very last shot of the film feels like a challenge to the audience to match up to the heroism displayed at Dunkirk.

The problem is that Nolan is becoming more and more like his favorite director: Stanley Kubrick.  Kubrick was a man who could create some of the most iconic images every made in cinema.  But his films had a coldness that borders on pathological.  Nolan seems to be following in his stylistic footsteps, which I think will ultimately hurt his storytelling.

All of the performances are great.  Newcomer Whitehead has to carry so much of the movie without saying anything, so all of his subtle emotion must be constantly present.  Hardy, as he did when he played Bane in Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, must do most of his work with only his voice and his eyes.  And Rylance proves once again why he earned his Oscar a few years back.  There is absolutely nothing showy about his performance.  And yet it is so charismatic that he lingers with you long after the movie ends.  He refuses to chew scenery.  But when he says lines like "We have a job to do," it does it in a way that is so plain and firm that you cannot help but agree.

Dunkirk is a great film told by a master of the visual form.  But if he had just given his film a bit more heart, it could have been one of the greatest.

4 out of 5 stars

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