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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Review: Dunkirk (2017)

* * * *

Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Brannagh

I cannot imagine seeing Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk in IMAX. I'm sure it's an incredible viewing experience, I have no doubt that certain elements of the film would actually be enhanced by being seen in that format, but I don't think I'd be able to handle the intensity of it. I had to stress eat my way through the regular theatrical format as it is. That's how immersive an experience Dunkirk is; it leaves you feeling breathless and worn-out, but also exhilarated and, despite the deep wells of despair open just beneath the surface of many scenes, hopeful. The story of the evacuation of Dunkirk is one of disaster, destruction, and death, on the one hand, and the miracle of ordinary people stepping forward to do an extraordinary thing on the other. It's an epic tale told here in intimate, searing detail, minimalist in its scope but maximized in its power. Dunkirk is a triumph of filmmaking destined to join the ranks of the all-time great war movies as a standard bearer of the genre.

Dunkirk is told in three parts unfolded concurrently, but over varying lengths of time which will eventually meet and overlap. The first part takes place over the course of a week at the beaches of Dunkirk and follows Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a British private desperate to get on a ship. The second part takes place at sea over the course of a day and follows Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance, transcendently good), who answers the call for private boats and sets off for Dunkirk with his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and George (Barry Keoghan), a teenage acquaintance who impulsively jumps aboard as they leave. The third part takes place in the air as three Spitfire pilots, including Farrier (Tom Hardy), have enough fuel to stay up for an hour, which would ideally allow them to get to Dunkirk, provide 40 minutes worth of air cover, and then get back to Britain to refuel. In practice it doesn't work out that way, as the pilots find themselves having to engage with the enemy over the sea and the time spent in these skirmishes, as well as the damage sustained, will limit their ability to effectively assist at Dunkirk and leave the men on the beach feeling as though they've been abandoned to be plucked off one-by-one by the enemy.

In a sense, this is partially true. Defeated on the continent, the British government was left to face the very real and very terrifying prospect of invasion on its own shores, a fight which would require all the power of their navy and air force, which meant saving their ships and their planes for the next fight instead of sacrificing them to the growing disaster at Dunkirk, a pragmatic strategy which would be cold comfort to the men stranded at Dunkirk, including the film's Commander Bolton (Kenneth Brannagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D'Arcy) who oversee the attempts at evacuation with frustration: the safety of home is so close, yet they're so far from reaching it and so many men are dying as they wait. Exposed on the beach, there's nowhere to take cover when they hear the screaming of enemy planes and there's nothing between them and death but the hope that they won't get hit. Even when they get onto a ship there's no opportunity to exhale and relax, as the bombardment from the air might well tear the ship apart before it even has a chance to launch. The hellishness of the situation is explored through Tommy, who keeps managing to find his way onto boats only to end up right back on the beach, stuck as if in purgatory and seeing up close and personal several variations on the horror of death by drowning.

Although Nolan goes all in when it comes to depicting the brutality and horror of the situation at hand, his depiction of the characters is much more spare. They don't say much through dialogue; a lot of the characterization is made through facial expression, gesture, and body language (in Hardy's case, it's done with little more than his eyes) in a way that at times almost makes it seem like a silent film. This is a film of faces: faces of terror, faces of desperation, faces of determination, faces of mostly young men trying to survive from one moment to the next. I've read reactions to the film which are critical of how little the viewer learns about the characters and how difficult that makes it to connect with them and I'm genuinely baffled by that. I'm not sure why any backstory would be necessary in order to empathize with the characters given the immediacy with which Nolan portrays the crisis they find themselves in, and I think that those details are ultimately beside the point. This is a story about an extreme situation and people are different when they're in extreme situations than when they're in their normal, day-to-day existence. The people on screen are ones who are, for the most part, stripped down to their most basic selves, driven by their instinct for survival; there's nothing else we need to know about them.

I'm a fan of Nolan's generally, though I find his work to be somewhat emotionally remote (even Memento, which is built around the idea of a man's love for his wife driving him on a quest for vengeance, finds its strength in Nolan's nimble storytelling ability rather than in the relationship in which the narrative has its roots). Dunkirk is a technical marvel, a film that puts you inside a Spitfire as it attempts to maneuver around and locate it target, on the beach as a plane is bearing down and preparing to bomb, in the ship that's just been hit and is swiftly going under, in the water with chaos all around; but it's also a film that made me feel more than any other Nolan film, which is of course ironic given how little we come to "know" the characters. It has the advantage, certainly, of telling a story based on real events, but it takes more than that to make a truly moving motion picture. When I think back on the film, I keep returning to the faces: to the silent agreement that Tommy makes by sharing a glance with another soldier (Aneurin Barnard) at the beginning of the film, and Tommy's look of weariness at the end and the look of shame and despair on the face of Alex (Harry Styles), a fellow private whom Tommy helps fish out of the water and who becomes his constant companion thereafter; to the look that Dawson and Peter share when the latter tells a lie to one of the soldiers they've saved and the former silently assures him that he's done the right thing; to the eyes of Farrier as he has to choose between preserving enough fuel to make it to Dunkirk and staying to fight over the channel and provide cover for the small ships making their way to Dunkirk. This is a film with a strong emotional core that makes it more than just a rollercoaster ride that gets your heart pumping through the relentlessness of its action scenes. Dunkirk is a film complete in its vision, stripping itself down to bare bones but making a feast of it. It's a great film.

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