DunkirkReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/20/17 00:26:32
Because they are both elaborately conceived and executed recreations of key events of World War II from two of the most popular American filmmakers of the moment, there is an excellent chance that many of the reviews of Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” will end up mentioning Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) as a key influence. I suppose that comparisons between the two are inevitable and even justified at certain times but after reflecting upon it for a bit, I have come to realize that the film that “Dunkirk” most closely suggests is the other WW II epic from 1998, Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line.” Both are films from distinctive and ambitious filmmakers that show them looking at the biggest and most transformative event of the 20th century from their unique cinematic perspectives and both have little concern for the more traditional approach towards narrative drive and character development of other films of its type. The end result is a film that undeniably delivers the goods and solidifies Nolan’s position as on of the most talented and ambitious filmmakers of our time but goes about it in such an unexpected way that the end result is liable to perplex as many viewers as viewers as it attracts.Unlike such contemporary WW II epics as “Saving Private Ryan,” “Letters from Iwo Jima” or even “Pearl Harbor”—which shoehorned in the Doolittle Raid in order to give audiences something resembling a happy ending—“Dunkirk” does not use a key Allied victory as a stepping-off point for its storyline. Instead, it centers on the period of late May and early June of 1940 when the Axis powers were at their greatest and had succeeded in practically driving Allied forces out to sea. In Dunkirk, France, thousands and thousands of soldiers were trapped on the beachfront and the harbor and pinned in by sharpshooters on land and planes flying in from the sea to strafe the soldiers with bullets and drop bombs on the British military ships that are trying to ferry them to safety. In fact, as British Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), the one in charge of trying to get the soldiers off the beach, remarks at one point, they can practically see England from where they are (only about 26 miles away), but with casualties mounting and time running out, even traveling that small distance seems to be an impossibility.
As the evacuation of Dunkirk was an episode that took place on land, in the air and at sea, it is only fitting that “Dunkirk” breaks up the story into three narrative strands with each one set primarily in one of those areas. In “The Mole,” young British soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) makes it through the perilous streets of Dunkirk to the beach, just in time for the latest in a series of horrible aerial attacks. Over the course of a week, he struggles to find a way to get off the beach and save himself. At first, he and another soldier (Aneurin Barnard) grab a wounded man on a stretcher and run him on to a hospital ship that is just about to leave in the hopes of going with them. Although the two get the wounded man on board in time, they are nevertheless kick off the ship—this proves to be a lucky break but it kicks off a nightmarish ordeal in which the two make several attempts to get out to sea, only to find themselves washing back up on the beach over and over again over the course of the next few days.
“The Sea” explores one of the most notable aspects of the Dunkirk evacuation—the number of English civilians who took their own smaller boats across the Channel to Dunkirk to pick up as many of the stranded soldiers themselves as part of what was dubbed Operation Dynamo. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his teenaged son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and local boy George (Barry Keoghan) are among those answering the call by sailing off into what they know to be immense danger. This is best represented by a soldier (Cillian Murphy) whom they rescue from the water and who responds with incredulous horror when he learns they are heading towards Dunkirk while demanding that they turn around and save themselves. In the final thread, “The Air,” a pair of Royal Air Force pilots (Tom Hardy, once again spending most of his screen time with his face mostly covered and his dialogue all but unintelligible, and Jack Lowden), despite being ordered to not engage, circle the airspace in their Spitfires in order to fight off the airborne German attack. At one point, the former’s gas gauge is rendered unreadable after an attack and he begins using readings from his partner to determine how much his left—a neat system but one that unfortunately goes sideways when the other pilot develops problems of his own.
One of the recurring themes in much of Christopher Nolan’s work is the way that he manipulates the time structure in order to add extra layers to the narrative while keeping viewers on their toes— a conceit he has explored in ways ranging from the backwards formatting of “Memento” to the various layers of temporal reality in “Inception” and “Interstellar.” This occurs again in “Dunkirk” as the three narrative strands all play out over different timespans—“The Mole” over a week or so, “The Sea” over a day and “The Air” over a couple of hours —while bouncing back and forth between each other before somehow managing to more or less converge in the final reels. Sure, most people will inevitably compare “Dunkirk” to “Saving Private Ryan” but in this particular respect, watching the various storylines pinball off of each other reminded me more of a more serious version of Spielberg’s great WW II epic “1941.” At first, this approach is more than a little disorienting and the eventual tying together of the threads does not quite pay off as spectacularly as Nolan might have hoped but as a way of recasting an old fashioned narrative with his own particular interests as a filmmaker, it is undeniably intriguing and it all but forces viewers to pay a little more attention to the proceedings and hopefully get caught up in them than they might have with a more traditional approach.
Of course, without any advance warning of this particular approach, those viewers who are not already confirmed fans of Nolan’s aesthetic as a filmmaker may find it all a bit off-putting and there are other aspects that may give them pause as well. Although there are a few moments of melodrama to be had here and there, Nolan takes a largely clinical and non-manipulative approach to the proceedings—there are no great romances (or any women in the cast, for that matter) or inspiring speeches or bits of elaborate derring-do meant to rouse audiences with an orgy of elaborate special effects and cheap emotion. Instead, he employs a stripped-down take in which the action beats are brief, confusing and terrifying, the death scenes (ranging from mass anonymous slaughter to random accidents and covering virtually every possible method of losing one’s life in such a situation) just as abrupt and virtually none of the characters are given the chance to deliver long and elaborately written monologues about why they are doing what they are doing. In fact, those looking for characters they can fully identify with may be put off to learn than many of them are not even afforded proper names, let alone elaborate backstories or dramatic arcs. Some viewers may also be somewhat put off by the score by Hans Zimmer that largely eschews traditional melodies and themes in order to provide an occasionally atonal that is, shall we say, unique.
As an admirer of Nolan and his past work, though not to the fanboy extremes of some of his more devoted followers, I did not have a problem with any of these things, with the exception of Zimmer’s score, which I don’t think is bad but which I do believe is laid on a bit too thickly at times, especially during points where silence might have been more effective, Besides, there are enough other admirable aspects to “Dunkirk” that should help offset the confusion inspired by these elements. The most obvious is that as a cinematic experience, it has few obvious rivals—the battle scenes and their immediate aftermath are as harrowing and horrifying to observe as can be while still sticking within the parameters of a PG-13 rating and the visual style employed by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, who shot the proceedings on film with a combination of IMAX and 70MM that is stunning to behold even if you, like those at the press screening I attended, are made to watch it in a normal-scale digital presentation instead of in the actual 70MM process. The performances, which more often than not in a film like this tend to be a bit strident and over-the-top so as not to be lost amidst all the chaos, are low-key and surprisingly effective with the large cast mixing together familiar faces like Branagh and Hardy with relative newcomers so that we are seeing the characters and not just a bunch of famous faces playing dress up—teen music idol Harry Styles turns up here as one of the soldiers on the beach and even he blends in with the others to the point where he just comes across as one of the guys. (Of course, the audience members who let out an ear-piercing squeal at the end as his name flashed during the end credits might disagree.)“Dunkirk” is a powerful work from one of the great directors of our time, a film that works both as a stunning technical exercise and as an examination of the extraordinary heroics that transformed what was technically a grim and humiliating retreat into a sort-of triumph. It also serves as a reminder that Christopher Nolan is one of those rare directors who can successfully present intimate and compelling stories even while working on the largest physical scale imaginable. As breathlessly exciting as any studio blockbuster and as audacious in its storytelling as any art-house item, this is the rare film that audiences of all persuasions should hopefully be able to embrace and it will certainly go down as one of the great WW II-related films of our time.
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