Friday, July 21, 2017

War Movie or Not? - Dunkirk, Reviewed

If you ask anyone with even a passing interest in history, they are likely to have an opinion as to the turning point of WWII; the single event which, had it turned out another way, might have affected the outcome of the entire affair. Key among these are likely to be the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor which brought the Americans into the war; Operation Barbarossa, wherein Hitler opened a second front and engaged the implacable Russians; and Operation Overlord, the Normandy landings on D-Day.

But before any of these, in June of 1940, was the evacuation of Dunkirk. 400,000 British troops fleeing France, surrounded by Nazis on three sides, and trapped by the sea on a fourth. Capture of the British Expeditionary Force seemed inevitable, and it was hoped that perhaps 30,000 men could be rescued, men needed to protect England from the inevitable German invasion across the English Channel. The invasion was to be called Operation Sea Lion, and the only thing that prevented it was the Miracle at Dunkirk.

Had things gone another way, it is easy to speculate how the dominoes fall; Operation Sea Lion replaces the Battle of Britain, England falls, and the Reich takes the world's biggest navy and a huge production centre out of the war, making Fortress Europe unassailable. Would the U.S. even enter the war if not provoked? It is truly chilling to consider.

Christopher Nolan feels this miracle is the seminal hinge-point of the 20th century, but you almost wouldn't know it from his movie, Dunkirk. It is another brilliant piece of work from a master filmmaker, but in many ways, it is barely a war movie, so unconventionally does he handle every aspect.

First of all, the focus is extremely personal, The only map you see in the entire film is the leaflet dropped by the Germans advising the BEF to surrender. There are no shots of Churchill, no generals moving model ships on a giant table, no drama in Parliament or any ministries. The entirety of the story plays out through the eyes of the handful of sailors, soldiers and pilots we follow over a brisk 106 minutes (Nolan's shortest feature), and the consequences are told on their faces.

Conversely though, you never once see the face of the enemy. Oh, they make their presence known, for certain, with crackling sniper fire and shrieking Stuka dive bombers, but the opposition is abstracted, making Dunkirk less of a war movie, and far more of a film about escape, both literal and figurative. In many ways, time is a far bigger enemy than the Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht, which is probably why a ticking watch plays such a prominent role in Hans Zimmer's haunting score for the movie. (In fact, one of Chris Nolan's pocket watches provided the sound after Zimmer requested it from him.)

Lastly, it is a uniquely structured, non-linear movie due to the contradictory timescales of the stories, depending on whether you examine Dunkirk from the sea, land, or air, as the director explains:
"For the soldiers who embarked in the conflict, the events took place on different temporalities. On land, some stayed one week stuck on the beach. On the water, the events lasted a maximum day; and if you were flying to Dunkirk, the British spitfires would carry an hour of fuel. To mingle these different versions of history, one had to mix the temporal strata. Hence the complicated structure; even if the story is very simple. Do not repeat it to the studio: it will be my most experimental film."
Because of this, and the fact that you see the same events multiple times and from different perspectives over the course of the film, there are those who will say that Dunkirk is like a second World War Pulp Fiction, but I don't feel that's quite right; I think Nolan has done something astonishing with this movie, and I believe he has made the cinematic equivalent of Picasso's Guernica; a fractured but comprehensive look at an intrinsically chaotic event, shown from multiple perspectives.

Most war movies, especially WWII movies, center on the notion of 'what price victory?' Sure we can win, but what was the cost? Because Dunkirk is centered around a defeat that, militarily at least, can only be described as a failure, that angle doesn't really work, and so the theme of escape comes into play repeatedly: escape from a beach filled with now-helpless soldiers periodically bombed by planes, escape from snipers in an unfamiliar city, escape from the sea itself as water floods into a sinking vessel. Nolan handles this kind of suspense better than anyone since Hitchcock, and I cannot tell you how many times I caught myself holding my breath.

Given the stellar quality of the cast (Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy), it may come as a surprise to some that Dunkirk, despite the intimacy of its story, is far more a director's film than an actor's. There is very little dialogue, and poor Tom Hardy in particular spends a good amount of his screentime trying to emote effectively while wearing the mask and goggles of a Spitfire pilot, and doing remarkably well, considering!

The performances are solid, though, despite the lack of speeches or grandstanding, or excerpts you look at and think "that's the clip they will show at the Oscars when listing the nominees". Mark Rylance in particular stands out, with his quiet but conflicted surety as a pleasure craft captain brought in to help with the evacuation along with hundreds of other civilian ships, most of which we don't see until the final minutes of the movie. His conviction to do what's right, even in the face of opposition from Cillian Murphy's shell-shocked rescuee, wrestles with his responsibilities to his son and the young hand who has come along to help. Rylance needs no extra dialogue or exposition to bring this nuance into play; he should probably get an Oscar nomination for each eye.

Best of all though, Nolan is a man who really knows his way around a viewfinder, and in this second collaboration with his Interstellar D.P. Hoyte Van Hoytema, he really gets a chance to show off. Using a limited palette of blues, greys and browns, often synced to the sea, air and land of his three concurrent and intermittent stories, he runs the gamut from long, lingering reaction close-ups to sprawling vistas filled with hundreds of extras.

And even better, he is an old school filmmaker in many ways, eschewing digital moviemaking for shooting on 70mm and IMAX stock, and using real ships and real aircraft to make all those elements fell far more real and visceral than even the most photo-realistic simulation ever could. After the film, Fenya confessed how nervous the creaking, fragile-sounding Spitfire scenes made her feel. No Top Gunnery in these dogfights, just the frustrating and unnerving feeling of slow, hard-gee turns followed by quick course changes, and the almost languid way a Bf. 109 drifts into the sights of the premier British fighter plane.

Dunkirk is a real-feeling film about a real war, and a real event in that war that gets terribly short shrift in both educational curricula and popular culture. Whether or not it is a great 'war film' I will leave up to you, although I will certainly not contest anyone who makes the assertion. There is no question in my mind that Christopher Nolan has made a great motion picture that reflects true craftsmanship in the way it mixes spectacle with emotion. He has somehow put together a summer blockbuster that not only deserves every dollar and accolade it receives, but also advances the art of filmmaking; in many ways, a second miracle of Dunkirk.

And as to history, well, let's not forget that we are not so far removed from this amazing event. When Audrey and I took a tour of the Thames River in London in 2005, our guide pointed out a ship moored up with a small distinctive flag fluttering off its stern. He explained that flag was a Dunkirk Jack, meaning that very vessel, an unassuming cabin cruiser, had participated in the evacuation, something he clearly took a lot of pride in.

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