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DUNKIRK (2017) review

July 20, 2017

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written by: Christopher Nolan
produced by: Emma Thomas and Christopher Nolan
directed by: Christopher Nolan
rated: PG-13 (for intense war experience and some language)
runtime: 106 min.
U.S. release date: July 21, 2017

 

Throughout his two-decade career as a writer/producer/director Christopher Nolan has made it known that he loves cinema. It’s become apparent simply by looking at his process and the outcome of each of his projects. Nolan is a craftsman, showing with each film his ability to adeptly and impressively orchestrate breathtaking visual spectacle and technological achievement to tell the story he wants to tell. That’s exactly what happens with “Dunkirk”, Nolan’s highly-anticipated war film which sets out to drop viewers into a World War II experience like no other. It’s an ambitious and exhausting achievement, paying tribute to those who tried to survive, defend and rescue, during insurmountable odds against them. It’s a simple, straightforward story uniquely told – if only he added subtitles or maybe only understanding 10% of the dialogue was Nolan’s way of accomplishing full immersion. 

The film revolves around the land, sea and air battles near the harbor of Dunkirk, France, and the intended evacuation (code-named Operation Dynamo) of Allied soldiers stranded there by the Germans, which took place between May 26th and June 4th, 1940.  It’s likely a lesser-known tale, if you’re not a historian or WWII buff. Ten years ago, we saw a little bit of the Dunkirk chaos during an amazing long-take in Joe Wright’s award-winning film, “Atonement”, but Nolan is taking 106 minutes to extrapolate and recreate the drama (and trauma) along the English Channel. While this isn’t the first time what transpired at Dunkirk has been made into a film, it’s the first time it’s been done like this.

The goal of Operation Dynamo was to rescue at least 300,000 of the 400,000 stranded British troops stranded on the shore. The problem was that transports weren’t coming and air support wasn’t available, with all other British forces held up in England. With a Nazi attack imminent, defending or getting off the shoreline were the only options for survival. The men waited at Dunkirk were often sitting ducks, with German planes whirring by to pick them off and dive bombers taking out the few boats sent to assist them. Meanwhile, German tanks rolled closer to the horizon, as increasing desperation could be felt, ticking off like a clock (something that is echoed in the concurrent soundtrack by maestro composer and frequent Nolan collaborator, Hans Zimmer).

 

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It’s important to note that almost none of this information is gleaned from Nolan’s film.  He’s thankfully unconcerned with showing war room talk (we’ve seen enough films with that) and is instead focused on camerawork that follows closely the men on the ground, those aboard ships, boats or stranded atop capsized vessels, as well as the sweaty men in cockpits trying their best to defend the Dunkirk coast. It’s front and center, up close approach at humanizing the nameless faces we so often see in textbooks or old reels. In doing so, Nolan captures the urgency and immediacy of the situations and atmosphere. The intensity of the entire premise is like a reversal of the 15-minute opening of Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”.

For his first biographic story, screenwriter Nolan takes a unique triptych approach, following what transpired on the land, sea and air, with their own specific time stamp. Each chapter is initially named, yet none of the three chapters are told in chronological order, which makes the logic in naming each chapter somewhat moot, but it never takes away from the viewing experience – in fact, the chapter titles aren’t really needed.

The chapter on the shoreline is entitled “The Mole” – there’s no use looking for a traitor, the title refers to “a pier, jetty, breakwater, or junction between places separated by water” (had to look that up) – where the troops try to survive for a week while awaiting rescue. Here’s where we follow British privates who look like boys, (Fionn Whitehead, Anerurin Barnard, Kevin Guthrie and Harry Styles) as they look for the quickest shortcut onto a ship, despite long lines of troops already in queue. There are high-ranking officers overseeing the boys on the mole and the sand, like Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) and although they remain fixtures on the pier, it’s clear they are just as confused and desperate about their situation as those who look to them for direction.

There’s a chapter pertaining to what transpired on the sea, which involved both the evacuation by the navy and all of the civilian ships that volunteered to sail to Dunkirk to assist the troops. Destroyers are bombed from above with troops and sailors jumping into the ocean to survive, while many of them drown with the sinking ships. We follow one such ship manned by a Mr. Dawson (the always-great Mark Rylance “Bridge of Spies”), who’s assisted by his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and their young neighbor, George (Barry Keoghan). All three of them encounter a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) they pick up out of the water, which will prove to be as precarious as their mission.

 

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The chapter in the air features the most breathtaking visuals of the film, with “Interstellar” cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema accentuates the sunlight glistening across the sea below as the pilot careen up and down in the sky above.  We’re guided through the air by three pilots of the British Royal Air Force, as they evade unseen German aircraft while heading back to the coast to protect those on sea and land. We only get to know two of them, Collins (Jack Lowden, “Tommy’s Honour”) and Farrier (Tom Hardy) and it’s useless to try and understand what their saying with their gear on and all the noise around them. Hardy performs as if he’s in a silent film, once again using his expressive and soulful eyes to his mental state and explain the decisions he makes as the pilot winds up remaining on task without a working fuel gauge, engaging in heated dogfights with German planes.

It’s frustrating at first, but we don’t really need to know who any of these characters are – although there are times when a little more information about them would be helpful –  it’s what they’re doing that’s important. What is communicating in their actions is fear more than heroic acts we’re used to seeing in war films, which is more real and understandable than any feats of heroism. Nolan shows this fear as the focus is on men who behave bravely and impulsively as they try to survive or save others. As much as watching these films often finds us wondering what we’d do in such an incredible situation, “Dunkirk” is a film where you simply can’t imagine how you’d behave.

As much as Nolan uses time here to countdown the peril and drama of the story, there’s no time taken to get to know who these men are. It’s not that their not humanized, it’s simply that there’s no time, which adds a palpable urgency to the story. There’s a vivid disorientation to much of what we see here – it’s seen in the motion of the vehicles and can be felt in the performances. At times, different perspectives are covering the same sequence of events, yet placed in different times throughout the film. It’s not necessarily hard to follow, it just takes some getting used to. In that sense, “Dunkirk” keeps things fresh, building clarity without explaining as it cycles through all three chapters to tell a cohesive albeit harrowing tale.

 

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Admittedly, “Dunkirk” can be a frustrating watch, watching characters with no backstory and no defining characteristics, but maybe that frustration is because Nolan is giving something we’re not used to. The emotions are still there, even though we can hardly tell the names of these characters (I had to look most of them up and even then I gave up on some of them), but the all actors (all British) are nevertheless committed and compelling. As these men duck and dodge bullets from above and endure deafening explosions, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the absurdity of humanity, something that is often conveyed in the best war films.

There are many unique aspects to “Dunkirk”, yet what comes to mind is how we never see the faces of the adversary.  That decision is purposeful, elevating the fear and extreme peril these men are in. When a dozen troops try to take cover in the belly of a land-locked boat, they must remain silent and listen for hope or for the encroaching enemy. It doesn’t end well for some of them as the tide rushes in and enemy bullets puncture the hull, filling the interior vessel with frenzied panic. While it’s one of many harrowing scenes, it also shows the repercussions to actions that aren’t well thought out during the panic and chaos of war. It’s a scene that I’ll definitely think back as I recall the film later on.

 

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On a technical level, “Dunkirk” is a marvel to behold visually as you’d expect from Nolan, but the sound mixing tends to add to the confusion. The sound design is powerful, but I often couldn’t understand lines of dialogue and after a while I just gave up. That’s frustrating, considering I was indeed invested in the characters and what they were going through. I couldn’t tell if Nolan was going for an authentic auditory experience, where you would likely not be able to understand what was being said next to you in real life, which explains what I couldn’t hear, or if it was the theater I saw it in.

The film was shot on a combination of 54 pound IMAX 65 mm and 65 mm large format film stock (designed for a 12-track theater sound), with more IMAX footage shot than in any of Nolan’s previous films (an estimated 75 percent), but my screening wasn’t in an IMAX theater. Maybe that’s the problem.

In fact, I looked into it and the optimal way to see “Dunkirk” would be in an IMAX theater that shows the film in 15/70 (meaning locations that use 70 mm film projectors, running film through the projector(s) horizontally, each frame being 15 perforations wide) and the nearest theater from Chicago is at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis. I’m sure any theater showing the film in 70mm will be a great viewing experience, but it’s frustrating that the best way to view the film is not so accessible and would likely require a road trip.

Nevertheless, “Dunkirk” achieves a grand level of suspense and cinematic craftsmanship, delivering everything you’d expect from a filmmaker who loves the format he’s working with. It’s a nail-biter and a gut-wrenching watch, but it’s also humanizes these characters more than most war movies, impressively doing so without delving into who these men are. In that sense, “Dunkirk” is the best war film since Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima”. Nolan takes a challenging approach to what is probably his most ambitious project to date and succeeds.

 

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

 

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