Dunkirk

July 24, 2017

dunkirk-movie-preview-01_feature.jpgThough an inspirational story of true heroism against almost impossible odds, I can’t say I’ve ever been too keen to see a movie about the famous rescue at Dunkirk.  Though it’s etched in history due to its strategic importance (survival of the army meant survival of Britain and the Allies) as well as the famous Churchill speech it inspired, a film version lends itself too easily to ponderous patriotism and hokey sentimentalism.  It also seems quite boring.  I get the impression, having now seen Christopher Nolan’s depiction, that he probably felt the same way – at least, about the boring bit.

To hear of Nolan doing such a film, especially after his attempt at sci-fi profundity, Interstellar, which got lost in its own importance for too long of its running time, you’d think he was making yet another stab at Capital A “artistry”, at least as far as mainstream accolades go.  I was attempting to avoid using the “O” word, but it can’t be helped:  in general, the only reason to make a lavish and large World War II drama is for Awards attention.  Something for the older generation to nod along and maybe shed a tear over, and everyone to tacitly agree is Worthy of Our Culture.  I now throw my hands up and admit that I underestimated Nolan and his commitment to his style, because instead of an epic, languorous film about soldiers gritting their teeth and stiff-upper lipped, brave regular Englishmen coming to their aid in fishing boats, we get a tight, 107 minute action/adventure thriller.  Amazingly, it even features the puzzle box multiple-timeline structure Nolan is wont to employ, and perhaps most surprising of all, it actually works. 

It’s three, intersecting parks feature a week on the beach (“the mole”), a day on the sea with Mark Rylance’s citizen captain, and an hour in the air with an RAF pilot, played by Tom Hardy behind yet another mask.  The week is a bit of a cheat, unless one counts the days after (we might well do, I suppose), but it doesn’t really matter.  There’s fun to be hand to see at which points they do (and might) crossover, and they come together quite impressively on several occasions (even as the oil climax is predictable, it’s nonetheless viscerally thrilling, both as a horrifying fate and an almost joyful payoff).  Still, one can’t shake the feeling that there’s a puppet master pulling the strings.  Nolan’s constructions are such that they almost never feel natural and, as a result, particularly moving.  I couldn’t tell you what amount of these particular incidents are based on reality, but I’d be willing to guess that virtually none of them are.  Dunkirk, the event, is just a jumping off point for screenwriting chicanery and editing finesse.  I’m not altogether opposed to this by any means – as I said, a serious attempt to “pay honor” or whatever the real men and lives would likely be tedious to me – but the hopeful climaxes mostly feel a bit pat, like they just had to be there, whereas the payoffs to the more terrifying screw-turning always feel like the real point. 

All of this is helped considerably by the stunning 70mm cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema and the score by Hans Zimmer who, quite frankly, steal the show.  Percussive and driving, with what can only be described as a ticking second hand beat running under most of it and a dissonant, oscillating build ratcheting up the tension more than any performance onscreen. 

Some hokey interludes, it’s a tight machine, and even if Nolan reaches for emotional catharsis, he only vaguely achieves in the final few minutes.  Once again, Nolan’s a director for the head, not the heart.  “Coldness” has become the cliche about his style, and it’s true more often than not, but it’s a style all his own, and an impressive one at that.

-M

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