maxresdefault

This looks like just another war scene, but it’s threaded with horror. That’s this movie in a nutshell.

I was pretty conflicted about Interstellar and I’m kind of conflicted about Christopher Nolan in general. I, to an extent, agree with most of the criticisms that dog his work. But I also think Inception is one of the best movies ever made, with his Batman movies being some of the most overrated. To say I had low expectations for Dunkirk would be disingenuous because I had no expectations for Dunkirk. Good or bad. I was curious because it was a wartime event that hadn’t been covered in a huge movie, at least as a focus piece (Atonement has Dunkirk-related scenes). I was also curious to see what Nolan would do with a war movie, since he’s been doing high concept genre stuff for almost his whole career. On some level, I suspected that Dunkirk was about the safest move Nolan could have made after Interstellar failed to light the world on fire. I was wrong about this being a safe movie, but my lack of expectation was rewarded by one of the most pleasant and arresting surprises I’ve had in a theater for a super long time.

“Pleasant” is not really a word that you’d associate with this movie except maybe in the way I just did, where I’m really talking more about the feeling of surprise. Dunkirk is not so much aggressive as it is relentless and that energy, an almost constant rising action toward a very rewarding climax, is mostly steeped in the emotional resonance of horror even as it is delivered with familiar tropes of the war genre (duty, courage, banding together, grandiose and personal heroism, and so on). So while this is definitely a war movie, it’s also the second best horror movie of 2017. It is intense and it’ll make you squirm in your seat. A lot. All this while being one of the least violent, but loudest, war movies since Saving Private Ryan changed the game. What helps is Nolan’s mostly unsentimental point of view. This movie is not full of the customary jingoism and sentimentality of the American war film (these elements are present sparingly, and are mostly earned), but nor is it political in the sense of having a clear message about “war” except perhaps that it is something you survive rather than win.

There have been criticisms that there’s no story or characters here, but I think it’s interesting that Nolan stripped down his usual reliance on plot, exposition, and high concepts. He has the most trouble with plot and theme across his work, and these things are less important in Dunkirk than is the craft of telling a story through moving pictures.  There’s very little dialogue, so character comes across subtly through facial expressions and the few important choices that are available to each person. Dunkirk has a small, intimate cast, and approaches the historical events with a clever and almost seamless editing conceit of showing events at different points as if they are happening all at the same time… until they are. Dunkirk is a tremendous movie, and one that deserves to be seen at the best theater you have access to.

KIND OF HARD TO SPOIL THIS MOVIE, BUT FAIR WARNING ANYWAY

585185b1134aa1648e17b327_o_U_v1.jpg

There are definitely characters in this.

Dunkirk follows three different pieces of the historical events, all with a different location and span of time, and all following different characters and their perspectives through their experience of the evacuation. Operation Dynamo, in which civilian vessels were tasked with picking up the stranded British soldiers and ferrying them back to Britain, is the primary focus of the movie. We see little or none of other elements, like the rear guard action that was fought against the Germans. Instead, the film focuses on these slices of experience. The first spans a week before the Operation, following a pair of rank and file soldiers as they desperately try to escape the beach while experiencing first hand the dangers and horrors of their situation. The second spans the day of the Operation, with a father and son (and a friend who comes along and plays a crucial role in this storyline) who go out to Dunkirk as part of the civilian fleet. The last spans an hour, as the Operation takes place, and follows three RAF pilots as they fly a patrol to cover the boats and the beach with only an hour’s worth of fuel.

Each sequence has different thematic priorities, but they come together inexorably at the point of the film’s climax, very much like how all the layers of the dreamscape eventually converge in Inception. Up to this point, editing weaves the stories together (with only a few confusing moments) and a ticking clock is heard throughout the soundtrack as the audience slowly becomes enthralled with the escalating tensions and desperation of the evacuation.

1499325650-screen-shot-2017-07-06-at-82504-am

The film used entirely practical effects.

I say the three sequences have different priorities. What I mean can kind of be broken into two separate elements. One is that the film somewhat reflects Churchill’s big speech, which is presented at the very end when Dunkirk finally indulges in some sentimentality and war-movie self-celebration. The bit about fighting on the beaches, at sea, and in the air. Each section of the movie takes place in one of those realms and each section presents a different aspect of “fighting”, of war, and of duty and courage. Each section has a ticking clock, a certain window of time for things to happen as that creeping doom approaches. The doom of the German advance, the doom of actually reaching Dunkirk in a pleasure yacht and expected to do the near-impossible, and the doom of running out of fuel flying over the Atlantic with the job not yet done.

Of the three stories, the RAF pilots section is the most straightforward in terms of war movie tropes and themes. The fighting is more literal, and the themes of duty and courage are understated but very much inspiring. Even here, Nolan keeps you in suspense and doesn’t ease up until you’re near breaking. The other two stories present all the same themes, but explore them from different dimensions and with different outcomes and payoffs. In this way, Nolan can have a film that shows the abject horror of being a soldier alongside the rousing moral culmination of rising above adversity to do one’s duty and show courage in the face of extreme doubt and fear.

screen-shot-2017-03-29-at-7-06-42-pm.png

Many of the shots in the movie are gorgeous and expansive.

The beach story is anchored by Tommy, a very young soldier (Fionn Whitehead) who has the least amount of control on the outcome of the events. All he can do is try and survive it and we watch him scurrying around the beach with a mute companion (Aneurin Barnard) trying to scheme or sneak his way onto a boat. For Tommy, the war is abstract and remote and he’s just in a terrifying situation that anyone would want to escape. As he interacts, usually wordlessly, with other people trapped along with him, quick and unspoken alliances are formed and favors exchanged. One such is with Alex (Harry Styles), for whom the events at Dunkirk are a cause of shame and disgrace which he carries with him.

Escape is bittersweet for someone like him, and his feelings colour the way he acts later when the three of them are trapped with other men in a sinking boat and Alex is the first to try and justify getting rid of Gibson, the mute, by accusing him of being a German when he was really a French soldier just trying to get away. It’s Tommy who codifies this theme of war as something you survive, and in this way Gibson is just like the rest of them. It’s intentional that in this section, most of the British soldiers look alike. They are all having the same experience, versions of the dichotomy between Tommy and Alex. Some just wanting to get away, others trying to do their duty with a stiff upper lip, and still others just as scared of what people will say to them when they get home as they are of the Germans. It’s as intentional as the fact that we never see any Germans in the movie, they are anonymized apart from their weapons (the planes) and their looming, almost supernatural presence over the events we do see.

The beach story is the most horrifying. Each situation Tommy finds himself in is uniquely dangerous and scary. Nolan uses his obsession with time and tension very well to ratchet these scenes to as high a point of that tension as he can. This is where it becomes apparent that Dunkirk is at least spiritually a kind of horror movie, which I did not expect. When thinks he’s safest, Tommy is in the most danger from the kinds of chaotic and inexorable forces that he can’t do a whole lot about except duck, cover, run, hide. Ships sinking, bombs dropping, and gunshots pounding through what amounts to a big metal can… all things he and his compatriots have to deal with, all delivered to the audience with unsparing tension.

Dunkirk-Star-Studded-Cast.jpg

The boat stuff could have been its own movie, a tight and tense little thriller.

The sea story is about moral duty but also a kind of moral kindness. When Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) push off into the Channel, they have a sort of determined and calm attitude toward the danger they’re about to face. It’s George (Barry Keoghan), Peter’s friend, that is seeking an adventure and shows a little more enthusiasm at the prospects of getting close to the war and helping the effort. This dynamic is fine until they rescue a stranded soldier (Cillian Murphy) who is suffering from what he’s seen and who infuses the sea story with a slowly broiling sense of unpredictability and danger. Are these heroic civilians as much in danger from him as they are from what’s awaiting them at Dunkirk? Nolan plays with this idea, but ultimately winds up on the side of the angels. The soldier does something accidental but horrific, knocking George into the boat and grievously injuring him, and maybe one of the best things about the movie is how Mr. Dawson, but mainly Peter, handle it.

The soldier checks in on George, even when Dawson and his boy have a lot of other things to worry about, but eventually George dies. At that moment, you can see Peter want to blame the soldier and hurt him right back. But he doesn’t. He offers a comforting lie, a token of moral kindness for a guy who’s maybe (as Dawson says) suffering a lot as it is and not quite in his right mind. This nicely dovetails with the heroes’ welcome that the rank and file soldiers, like Tommy and Alex, wind up receiving at the end. Nolan described the events of Dunkirk as a military failure but a human victory, which is probably the clearest sentiment this movie has.

5a70ca40-6b26-11e7-a2d1-517ff4ddf9cb_Screen-Shot-2017-07-17-at-12-29-50-PM.png.c.jpg

Hardy does 90% of the acting in his minimal screen time using his eyes alone.

The RAF pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), are flying patrols and fending off German fighters and bombers. Their squad leader goes down almost immediately, leaving Farrier and Collins to rely only on each other as they battle against the limited time their fuel allows them. These scenes are all about precision and patience, with steadily mounting stakes and shrinking windows of time as they hunt and stalk the German pilots across the skies. Because there’s no CG and because Nolan is going for realism rather than whiz bang heroics, the sky story is probably the most cinematically accomplished. It’s the most visually gorgeous section, the best edited and executed, and probably the most heroic part of the movie. A lot of people will say it’s their favorite part, I think, and I gotta say I was really fucking relieved when Farrier finally landed his plane. That said, I wish Nolan could have spared us the self-indulgent metaphor of the sticky landing gear. Both in terms of what he’s trying to say about the events depicted, but also what he may be inadvertently saying about his own insecurities as a filmmaker. Yes, Chris, you stuck the landing this time. We know you know it.

Hardy carries this sequence with just his upper face. He is a straight baller as a pilot, scoring aces left and right (even at one point when his engine cuts out) and the movie lets his actions be the release valve for some of the tension at different points. At other points, his damaged fuel gauge provides its own tension as you can see him working out the math both with his hands and his mind. He’s always caught between the task before him and how much time/fuel he has left. The tension here is first whether he’s going to run out and then whether he’s going to die fighting with no fuel. That he doesn’t die is miraculous but the right choice for the movie. Alex and Tommy being greeted as heroes, Peter and Dawson forgiving the shivering, suffering soldier, and Farrier and Collins living on are all subversions of audience expectations. These subversions help make Dunkirk a very unusual war movie, especially for those used to American war movies.

But I think war movie fans are going to be pleased. Not only does this tell the story of a big event that hasn’t really been covered in this kind of detail on film before, it also offers a refreshing break from the more tiresome tropes of war movies. You do get to feel good about the accomplishments of Dunkirk and Operation Dynamo, but less in a sense of good guys vs. bad guys or the “greatest war” narrative that usually coats war movies, often to their detriment. Dunkirk is at once both more realistic and more idealist and I think it is probably also fairly educational, removed as it is from the big narratives about WW2 that usually infuse movies like this. Nolan seemed to place the sentiment and patriotism just so, often in the mouths of side-characters, officers in the beach story (Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy). It’s there, but it doesn’t take over the story and it doesn’t undermine its primary message of human triumph. It offers a little bit more emotional impact for people looking for those elements in the film, I’m sure, but it doesn’t really undermine Nolan’s largely clinical approach to the story. Rather than coming across as cold or detached, Dunkirk is probably also Nolan’s most successful attempt to be emotional impactful at all. I think this is down to that he seems to have made it a priority to get out of his own way for Dunkirk and I’m glad he did. It makes me excited to see what else he’ll do next, where before I was getting kind of worried that he had peaked. Dunkirk is easily one of the best movies of the year and one of the best war movies in a generation. It’s safe to say I was worried for nothing.

Advertisements