Thursday, July 13, 2017

DUNKIRK


Christopher Nolan is a director of superlative technical skill, and his new film of the evacuation of DUNKIRK lives up to that billing.  However, in his choice to strip it of all historical context, and to keep a close-up on three sets of anonymous character tropes, he has created a film that has no epic sweep; that fails to convey the magnitude of Dunkirk; and that fails to move.  Where it works, it works because of fleeting nuanced moments of acting brilliance.  But this is no LAWRENCE and he is no Lean: he has failed to combine the epic with the personal.

So, some context, because the film gives you none. (I wonder if this will affect non-British audiences' ability to engage with the film?) We are in the early months of World War Two. Ignoring captured intelligence to German plans, French, Canadian and British and other allied troops have been lured into Belgium by a German feint and have now been encircled and driven back to the French coast. Roughly 340,000 men - the principal strength of the British army - crowded the beach at Dunkirk - a port protected by a mole, or sea wall, from which they could board the large vessels sent to ferry them back across the English channel.   In doing so, they were hugely aided by the French forces tangling up the German troops sent to cut them off at the Siege of Lille. They were also hugely aided by Hitler's inexplicable decision to order the Luftwaffe not to pursue the troops.  

The evacuation took days, and combined large ships taking people off the Mole with small requisitioned commercial vessels collecting soldiers from the shallows. All the time, the troops subject to aerial assault on the beach and in the water, and the risk of being torpedoes once aboard. The scale of the battle was thus immense - with the RAF flying 3,500 sorties and engaging the Luftwaffe in dogfights away from the beach (hence many soldiers wondering where the fuck they were) - 36 Royal Navy destroyers ferrying men home as well as the Small Ships flotilla - and c340,000 soldiers ultimately evacuated.  It was both a great military failure and a success - because as humiliating as the lost Battle of France was, it enabled Britain to survive to fight on with its men and materiel largely intact. 

Christopher Nolan makes the decision to avoid all of this explanation, and to give us a Dunkirk that focuses on the personal experiences of the war by land, sea and air.  These theatres are inter-cut but take place along different time-scales.  The land evacuation takes place over the week, although frankly days merge into each other and I couldn't keep track.  The sea rescue takes place over a day and the RAF dogfight takes place over an hour, roughly corresponding to a Spitfire's fuel limit.  I rather liked the concept of intercutting the three, and although we do get a cute crossover with the same character appearing in two of the theatres, Nolan doesn't make it too intrusive or incredible. 

Where I think his claustrophobic personal approach works best is in the air battles.  Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden play RAF Spitfire engaging in dogfights some distance from the beach. With IMAX cameras mounted on modified Yaks, Nolan takes us into the air for some quite spectacular aerial photography.  Nonetheless, the downside of this approach is that one gets the impression that the men on the ground are right to ask where the RAF are - that the scale of the aerial assault is minute when it wasn't.  I also find it absolutely incredible that a RAF pilot, knowing how desperate the British were for materiel, would risk his plane in the way that Hardy's character does.  This utterly took me out of the film. 

The sea battle is also done very well from a technical perspective.  We get a sense of the claustrophobia of being aboard ship, the shell-shock and the terror of a watery death, especially when combined with lit gasoline.  I thought the acting was by far the best in this segment.  I very much liked Mark Rylance's quiet earnestness as a civilian sailor sailing to Dunkirk with his son - the quiet communication between the two of them with glances - the profound sympathy toward Cillian Murphy's traumatised rescued RAF pilot.  And the scene of soldiers drowning under a fiery sea is one of the most memorable and rightly horrific in the film.  But I also had deep concerns with Nolan's portrayal of the naval evacuation.  He has Kenneth Branagh's Colonel declare that the Navy is only risking one Destroyer. This is just untrue. There were 36 in use! In general, his character summarises the worst of the writing on the film. He's not a character so much as a Patriotic Reaction Machine. When he gets teary at the sight of the Small Ships as Elgar floats up through the score (superbly done by Hans Zimmer), Nolan is telling us to shed a tear.  When he looks concerned at the Luftwaffe flying overhead, this is a cue for us to get concerned.  And when at the end he remains in peril to help the French, we are meant to think, ah well, this has been EXCLUSIVELY from the perspective of white male Brits, but never mind, we sorted out the French too.  Appallingly crass stuff. Still, this being Nolan, Branagh will probably get an Oscar nom for this nonsense.

Nonetheless, it is on the beach itself that this film ultimately fails.  We have small nuanced scenes of brilliance - a soldier decided to commit suicide by walking into the water - or the quietly proud smile of a Royal Engineer who has built a makeshift pier out of trucks - but there is no sense of scale or chaos. According to Nolan, the beach at Dunkirk was filled with about 3 columns of about 200 soldiers neatly waiting to be evacuated, and ducking and turning on cue to the director's megaphone. There's no fear, panic, chaos, disorder at all.  There's also no sense that we are dealing with hundreds of thousands of men.  Ultimately, then, Nolan has made a gross error.  He has given us a film that tries to convey intimacy - without ever naming a character or making a character more than a trope - and he has chosen NOT to convey the epic sweep of battle. Worst of all he has made gross historical simplifications and some outright errors that massively impact our understanding of what is happening.  And his refusal to name the enemy as the German army is simply perverse. 

DUNKIRK is rated PG-13. The film goes on global release the weekend of July 19th.

34 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Im sorry for the lack of your brain cells, i wish i could help but you are a lost cause, stop being a movie critic and get help. Goodbye!

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  3. This is a very enlightening review and I deeply appreciate your opinion on Christopher Nolans new film. It's sad to hear Mr. Nolan kind of fails at making what was hopefully going to be his best film due to its subject material, but I hope maybe this teaches him what I believe to be his biggest flaw, which would be his characters being not very interesting. It would be great to see Christopher Nolan direct a film that be both smart, epic and personal. The closest he has come to that I believe is The Prestige though the ending somewhat has to much exposition. Again I thank you for your review and can't wait for its wide release for me to enjoy. But one last thing I would say is Christopher Nolan is as least trying new things in cinema compared to the other big budget CGI stuff coming out. Though lacks Andrei Tarkovsky's poetry, Kurosawa's incredible staging or great character, I still appreciate his trying when others don't.

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  4. Couldn't agree more - I think The Prestige is arguably his finest film because it is deeply moving and emotionally complex as well as being full of fascinating ideas and beautiful cinematography. And l also admire Nolan's passion for film.

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    1. Personally, I prefer Memento and Inception

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    2. Personally, I prefer Memento and Inception

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    3. Personally I like the film he will make in the future that shows he can limit his book intellectualism and grip with strength the emotional intelligence a movie should have to connect to an audience like never before without using suspense as his main go to way of drawing the audience in.

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  5. Awful director buoyed up by batman fanboys

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    1. I find your lack of brain cells disturbing....

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    2. dumbass

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    3. I believe your mistaken. How can a awful director have actual good action where you can tell what's happening unlike Michael Bay, and does stories that Hollywood is literally trying to keep out of theatres cause all they want are big-budget tent pole films that are adaptations, sequels or reboots. Are you the kind of person who wants to be kept in a continuous exploitative position by Hollywood who wants nothing but to maximize the profitability of your wallet by releasing a superhero film every month for the rest fifty years, or you the kind of person willing to fight for the independents, the auteurs, and original great films. Christopher Nolan may not be the best, but maybe you should explain every reason why he is awful, why every film he has released has been awful (I assume with no positive attributes at all to at least show they're not as bad as Transformers 5 or Suicide Squad) and also your personal opinion on why batman fan boys are being blinded by their love for awful Dark Knight. By the way 2018 will probably be the year Hollywood implodes on itself, with at least fifty tentpole films coming out meaning huge competition and a lot of possible bombs. (Even if good, the common moviegoer doesn't have that much money nor even go out to the movies that much)

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  6. Interstellar suffered from exactly the same problems. Like the great film makers of yesteryears (Hitchcock and Kubrick), Nolan simply fails to see the big picture stuff. Sure it's the personal stories that move you, but without a grand scale to witness it, you don't understand the magnitude of the situation. His earlier movies were good because they never tackled such a big scale. The character building and twists that made his older movies so acclaimed has been rendered moot in the scale he tries t work now. But hey, let's give him a 10 rating on IMDB because it is socially taboo to critic his movies. Strictly, 7.5/10, please.

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  7. Of course they have 'the right', they saw the movie. It's a coherent intelligent review whether you agree with it or not. Your comment is ignorant and aggressive moron

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  8. u fucking nigger christopher nolan is a god

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    1. I dont understand how some people hate his movies

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    2. Becausevthey dont understand his movies likevthis reviewer. He even doesnt know to write reviews.

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  9. You will burn in hell for disrespecting Nolan, son.

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  10. I don't know if the writer knows this, but Dunkirk is largely a story of white males batting each other.

    Who lived on the coasts of England and operated the boats? White males. Who were the leaders involved? White males. Who constituted the overwhelming majority of troops? White males.

    The countries involved were more white then they are now. Facfs.


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    1. Four Indian Army mule companies served alongside the BEF and were evacuated from Dunkirk. Among them my ancestors. Andy they weren't the only imperial troops.
      Should've been some non whites on the beach. I suggest you do some research. .

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  11. By your review I guess you were expecting a war documentary. Fatal mistake. Should have noticed years ago that reality is never Nolan's main goal.

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    1. Please tell them that a movie is for entertainment while a documentary is to recast what happened. So it is not binding for a movie to re-enact what happened.

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    2. Truthfully I agree, but this is also Christopher Nolans first film based on real events. Personally I haven't seen it and feel it overrated without seeing it, but I want to use Titanic as a example. The main characters in it were fake, yet just because if that James Cameron still respectful reenacted the emotions of the people their on the Titanic. He even had scenes dedicated just to talking about the fact there's not enough lifeboats to save everyone. A film can't represent reality perfectly (especially with editing literally breaking spacetime) but I believe there is a nice line where film can be connected to real life, yet still be art, which is its highest goal. The emotions matter, and the humanity of a film matters. Sense comes later, for me personally I want to make eventually a war film about the effects after a war, with surreal elements similar to Apocalpyse Now, which isnt exactly supposed to be a documentary like Dunkirk either. Both break away from reality to do there own things, Dunkirk is suspense while Apocalpyse Now with the effects of insanity and PTSD.

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  12. Excellent, informed and very well-reasoned review. Nolan has always been a cold fish. His favorite thing is portraying process with no real context. He excels at escalating tension, but this film seems to have been made with too many commercial considerations in mind. A PG-13 war film with no historical context? Sounds more like a video game or VR simulation to me. I suppose a video game-like quality is a plus in a marketplace aimed squarely at the lowest common denominator. Also, the Nolan fanboys only prove their ignorance with the vile and aggressive comments they leave here. You are a terrific writer. Keep up the incisive reviews.

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  13. Maybe before the critic wrote the review they should've read Nolans interviews and what he wanted to achieve with the movie? Seems like you were expecting a war documentary or some sort but thats not the case. He said himself that "I realised nobody had made a movie about Dunkirk because many people saw it as a defeat, and it was, but this isn't a war film, it's a film about survival and Dunkirk shows an incredibly hopeful and optimistic aspect of human nature that explains how we can come through the most difficult circumstances." And he also described it to be about "Communal Heroism"

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  14. Have not had a chance to see it yet, offering a piece of relevent historical trivia. British Fighter Command had a policy of prohibiting mechanics and engineers as pilots because they were considered to be not reckless enough in risking the aircraft. I'll need to see it myself to judge.

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  15. I get that this movie could have also showed the white female perspective, but tell me, other than the gender difference, how could this movie have portrayed other ethnicities? Britain back then wasn't exactly the melting pot it is now. It's a European battle (Europe is where white males are indigenous, by the way) and the British army evacuating Dunkirk did not include British or commonwealth soldiers from overseas colonies other than Canada. Canada back then was about 98% white. I can't find an example of a single officer who was part of the Dunkirk evacuation who wasn't a white male. I'm not attacking you here, but your comment about the white male perspective makes no sense to me given that this is a movie about a World War II battle/evacuation that primarily and almost exclusively involved white males. Many other Nolan movies (Inception, Batman, Interstellar, etc) could and should have had more women and minorities. But how is focusing on the 1% of people involved in the real life event who weren't white males really appropriate in this specific movie?

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    1. Just show some brown faces on the beach. My ancestors served as part of the four Indian Army mule companies serving alongside the BEF who were evacuated from Dunkirk. This wasn't a 100pc white army. It's insulting to portray it as such.

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  16. You should be locked in an asylum

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  17. Seems the author has written a review of a film that he wanted to see, rather than the one he did see. It's not a documentary, you know?

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  18. Amadeus is a great movie. It has nothing to do with Dunkirk just saying the obvious

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  19. Also another thought I bet the only reason ge chose the three people unconventional structure for Dunkirk Christopher Nolan is because he loves parallel editing. I mean seriously the guy does it in every movie.

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