Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Dun Deal

Dunkirk is the latest film from writer-director Christopher Nolan. It's a tale from World War II less familiar to self-centric Americans who generally only know about Pearl Harbor, Normandy, and maybe a few other things (if they watched Band of Brothers).

It's also quite a paradox of a film. It's an epic movie of sweeping scope... that's well under two hours. It's in many ways a story of a crushing defeat rather than a grand victory... though it is in many ways uplifting. Its sparse dialogue, and the general way the visuals could have conveyed that story with even less dialogue, makes the whole thing play much like a silent movie... but the way the sound effects scream in your eardrums and rumble your seats make it quite the opposite.

War movies are rarely a solid hit with me, and so by that standard I quite liked the film. But by the standards of Christopher Nolan, who usually amazes me on some level, this movie can't climb to the upper reaches of his filmography. Still, many elements of the movie are quite successful. It follows three distinct plot threads -- land, sea, and air. Each is distinct, adds to the whole, has a different tone, and gets you to invest in different ways.

The land story puts you right on the beach in Dunkirk, right in the thick of being surrounded and bombarded. There are no heroics here; courage manifests in not being paralyzed entirely. This thread is punctuated by some stiff-upper-lip nobility from Kenneth Branagh as a naval commander, but is generally the most conventional aspect of the film.

The air story tells another somewhat typical story of war movies: the carrying-on in the face of impossible odds. A group of pilots are trying to do as much as they can, wherever they can, to buy time for the Dunkirk evacuation. This section of the film serves up the most compelling visuals, a reason to see this in the theater if you intend to see it at all, and to consider an IMAX screening if one is convenient for you. (This section also makes the bold choice of again casting Tom Hardy as a character in a mask that muffles his voice. Wicked humor from Christopher Nolan?)

The sea story is to me the most compelling, as it follows a family of civilians who take their own boat out to rescue soldiers. It's a war movie happening to characters who "don't belong" in a war movie. This section also paints a vivid picture of PTSD and how it can utterly unmake a person, in the form of one particular rescued soldier. Stage actor turned film darling Mark Rylance is the star of this narrative, which also features a compelling performance by Nolan veteran Cillian Murphy.

There's one big aspect of the movie I can't decide on: the way its structured. Perhaps this should be considered a minor spoiler, so you might want to skip to the next paragraph. The three different plot threads each take place on their own time scale: the land unfolding over a week, the sea over a day, and the air over an hour. Despite the disparity, each thread is given equal time in the movie, and is shuffled together evenly as though unfolding concurrently. I'm reminded slightly of Game of Thrones (and A Song of Ice and Fire), which similarly juxtaposes subplots that aren't actually concurrent just to make for the most dramatic presentation. It's more in your face here, though, as day and night are sometimes interpolated, and as (eventually, in the third act) events you've already seen get repeated from another perspective. It is a novel and clever approach. Yet being such a cerebral component of an otherwise visceral experience, it does make me question whether it was the right choice for the film.

Overall, I'd give Dunkirk a B+. It's operating at a high enough level that I can say Christopher Nolan's track record remains intact -- he still hasn't made a truly bad movie. But at the same time, I feel that if it were to somehow make my Top 10 List of 2017, it would only be because I didn't see enough movies by the end of the year.

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