Friday, July 21, 2017

Dunkirk movie review.

It seems customary that at some point in their careers, every director that achieves fame is bound to create a World War II movie. As one of the most significant periods in history, the long and arduous war was a series of battles with numerous outreached arms, taking place on battlefields not just of violence and bloodshed, but sanity and humanity. The perspectives it provides are so versatile, and the scope so expansive, that any director can find a new spin on an already well-documented event.

So if any modern director seemed destined to create one, it had to be Christopher Nolan. Having already carved his name with epics the likes of The Dark Knight trilogy, showing he had a knack for full-scale explosive action and practicality, it seemed only a natural fit for one. But being such a cerebral-based filmmaker, the question still remained if his stylistics would truly blend with the traditional format. Yet while less scientific than his usual repertoire, heady it still remains, in very visceral, intentionally overwhelming ways, more of a thriller and suspenseful horror under the guise of a war movie.

You'd have to wonder how the director of Inception would be able to leave his own stamp on the evacuation of Dunkirk, in which 400,000 soldiers were stranded on the beach while surrounded by the German forces, and were regular targets of enemy fighter planes. The way that Nolan achieves this is in splitting his attention to three different perspectives, split between those on the beach, those of the Air Force, and the volunteer rescuers of the sea. We're presented with frequent shifts in timeline and characters weaved throughout all three stories, sometimes providing us with flashbacks to give context, as the three eventually meet their head in the film's final third.

i. The Mole: It's here where we are witness to the slowly unfolding evacuations of the British and French soldiers - our main surrogate played by Fionn Whitehead, or at least their fruitless intentions to scrape by the German forces, as ships are regularly attacked and reinforcements are few and far between. What's immediately striking about this film is how restrained its emphasis on characterization is. Although a character study, it's a very atypical one wherein backstory is typically unimportant to Nolan, and more focus is devoted to the psychology of the situation, as decay stretches to more than just the bombed ships, buildings, and beach, but also of the mind of soldiers. We're presented with an increasingly desperate and hostile living environment, with men willing to brave the ocean itself for the mere glimmer of hope of returning home, somehow managing to make even Dunkirk's massive beach seem claustrophobic and constricting. In these stretches, it feels as if Nolan is practically making a silent film, given how minimal dialogue is in favor of visual storytelling and emphasis.

And in doing so, he also manages to cut back on one of his most notorious habits as a filmmaker...exposition.

It seems as if Nolan has taken the criticism of films like Interstellar to heart, making a course correction to limit exposition, yet not in any way that breaks or bests him. It's for that very reason that backstory is so lacking, and yet that doesn't mean the characters are without depth or genuine emotional connection. If I can have an aside here, in Nolan's The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger's Joker once made the observation "in their last moments of life, people show you who they really are." Faced with little hope and an almost certain chance of death, Nolan is intensely focused on those natural reactions in the trenches, the desperation and the camaraderie between them, their nobility and their cowardice, their anger and their terror as the metaphorical walls begin closing around them, perhaps best showcased in a surprisingly excellent turn from former One Direction star Harry Styles, as the tension reaches continually boiling heights. How much hope can these men be expected to hold onto?

ii. The Sea: Little do they know, that hope is coming for them in volunteer rescuers. It's here in which we meet our second set of surrogates, Mark Rylance's Mr. Dawson, his son, and another young lad, who venture to the beach to bring as many men home as possible. Not to undercut the side of the soldiers, but this subplot certainly feels the most human of the three perspectives, following three men without weaponry, without armada, without any military equipment of any sort. All that they have aside from their modest ferry is the mere hope of venturing into the eye of the storm and escaping, even though this is more than likely a suicide mission of noble, but ultimately meaningless intentions, or at least that's how Cillian Murphy's rescued soldier feels it to be.

Is it all a sense of pride, a delusion that everything will turn out fine even though everything seems against that belief? Both sides certainly hold their merits, but the nobility of Mr. Dawson, as well as Mark Rylance's superb central performance, ensures that never a second goes by where his intentions are prideful, or dismissive of the very real possibility of death. That latter fact is absolutely acknowledged, but what good is the sacrifice of his home country's soldiers, if he himself isn't willing to sacrifice just as much to aid them. Death hangs over the operation like a constant specter, but there's an inspiring perseverance to the actions of the volunteers, that even in the face of total destruction, there is always hope to be found, even if it may not seem obvious. But how safe can the soldiers truly be with enemy fighters swarming like vultures?

iii. The Air: In the most stripped down and technically accomplished stretches of the film, we see several flyers of the Royal Air Force, led by Tom Hardy's Farrier, attempt to take down the enemy planes to ensure the boats and ships safe passage. In spite of what little actual story there is to these portions, there is still a great emotional core to be found in them, as the established stakes on the sea and land aid in furthering the tension in the air. As the fighters scatter like a ticking time bomb (Hans Zimmer's score is a little more than on the nose here), Nolan runs us through an incredibly intense series of dogfights to save the lives of those awaiting soldiers and ferry boats, making use of his typically tightly wound way with set-pieces. The dogfights are truly fantastic sequences, as the metallic beasts soar and weave through the air, with pounding rapid gunfire and engines almost resembling roars.

It also makes fabulous use of Nolan's typical preference for practical effects, the bird's eye views often providing a sensation of vertigo, with so many close calls you might have to remind yourself to breathe, and the stunt flying and crashes are genuinely spectacular stuff. But even if these segments are more impressive on a technical level than a story level, and Hardy's flyer may not seem like a fully formed character, it's still just as emotional and visceral as the rest of the film. If slight, it's still a very rousing section of sacrifice similar to the sea, as Hardy's stoic yet vulnerable fighter allows him to craft another terrific turn despite his sparse dialogue, and when a scene that seems as non-eventful as his grand exit leaves you heartbroken, you know Nolan's done his job.

But honestly, these three separate timelines are less impressive individually than they are in synergy, and this is where Nolan gets to leave his mark on the film. Bringing the same clockwork precision to Dunkirk that he brought to Inception, Nolan crosscuts between the various timelines (one week, one day, one hour respectively) with great confidence, sometimes deliberately cutting our attention away from an event from the viewpoint of one character, before cutting back later on in another segment, ratcheting up the intensity as the three distinct timelines reach their meeting point, and all sides converge as the gunfire comes raining down. Credit Lee Smith for his seamless transitions and tight pacing, wherein even moments of silence and simplicity are underlain with suspense and excitement. More often it feels like Nolan is directing it more in the vein of a horror movie, the gunfire and mammoth fighters substitutes for monsters, but no less frightening in their appearances, particularly thanks to the genuine startle and terror instilled through Richard King's soundwork. What comes to be seen is Nolan operating at the peak of his abilities, showcasing the war in all its chaos while still precisely aimed, massive yet lean, and simple but potent in impact.

As a side note, I didn't see the film in its IMAX presentation, although I did see it in 70mm, and seeing the movie in that form made me further appreciate the already impressive look of the film, the film stock showcasing Hoyte van Hoytema's stunning compositions in greater resonance.

But after all the tension and the suspense has passed over, everything in Dunkirk is capped off by a befitting ending of hope and accomplishment. Then and even now there is this belief that to be truly heroic is to settle conflict without failure, and that anything less is more scornful than commendable. But survival in the face of tragedy is still a victory in its own right, to escape the clutches of death and come away a free man its own triumph. In the face of great sacrifice and darkness, those final scenes of Dunkirk land with a wallop of a gut punch, a collective sigh of relief at the end of hardship, making the mere action of setting foot on land an accomplishment. At the end of it all, when Nolan has taken us through a storm and back to safety, he's made his mark on the war film loud and clear.

***** / *****

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