Friday, July 28, 2017

Review: Dunkirk (2017)

Dunkirk (2017)

Rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language

Score: 5 out of 5

So this is where the Christopher Nolan who made The Dark Knight and Inception was hiding. I was wondering where he was these last few years. The Dark Knight Rises in 2012 was an acceptable capstone to Nolan's Batman trilogy, but one that was nevertheless seen as a major disappointment coming off of the landmark film The Dark Knight. The following year, there was the disappointment of Man of Steel (which he produced and had a story credit on), proving that attempting to reboot Superman in the style of Nolan's Batman was a bad idea. The misfire of Interstellar, an attempt at a Spielbergian sci-fi epic whose sensibilities couldn't have been more alien to Nolan's as a director, was his first out-and-out dud, and then his protege Wally Pfister torpedoed his shot at following in his footsteps with the blundering Transcendence. It seemed like Nolan, the master of intricately-plotted films about Nietzschean ubermenschen whose superior intellects and logic allow them to outsmart their emotionally-clouded enemies, was human after all.

Dunkirk should put to rest the idea that Nolan was any sort of flash in the pan. While it is his shortest film at 106 minutes, it makes up for that by cramming as much intensity into that time as it possibly can, leaving me on the edge of my seat from start to finish. A war movie like few others, Dunkirk, based on one of Britain's shining moments in the Second World War, is a showcase of what Nolan does right and why he became a film geek icon, while leaving his weaknesses at the door. I'd hesitate to call it Nolan's best film, or even his second-best, but this is still an experience that begs to be witnessed on the biggest screen you can find.

Despite being a war movie set in World War II, one thing that is curiously absent from the film is the German enemy. While we see Luftwaffe planes in the sky, the only time that German army soldiers are ever seen is at the very end, their faces blurred in a haze. Given that Dunkirk in real life is famous not as the site of a battle but as the site of a retreat, this film instead devotes attention to the plan to get all those hundreds of thousands of soldiers off the beach and back to Britain, as told through the eyes of the people who took part. The film is split into three parts that take place over different time spans, occasionally crossing paths before fully coming together at the very end. The first is the experience of a group of British soldiers on the beach, taking place over the span of a week as they wait for rescue while surviving regular German bombing raids, eventually suspecting that one of their own may be a German spy. The second story, taking place over a day, is of a father, his son, and their teenage deckhand piloting their small yacht from England to Dunkirk, along the way picking up the lone, shell-shocked survivor of an evacuation ship that had been bombed. Finally, we focus on a Royal Air Force fighter pilot who, with only an hour's worth of fuel in his tank, covers the boats arriving on the beach and shoots down the Luftwaffe pilots trying to sink them.

The film feels as much like a procedural as it does a war movie, with Nolan weaving the various stories together in ways that foreshadow what will happen to the characters in the others. We see multiple scenes from different perspectives, knowing that, for example, the washed-up fishing boat that the soldiers on the beach hope to commandeer at high tide will eventually be sunk. The characters are not the focus here; the only ones whose names I managed to pick up were the people on the yacht, and I'm pretty sure that many of them were only named in the credits. Don't get me wrong, the actors all do great work, as befits Nolan's knack for getting great performances out of anybody. We get veteran British actors like Tom Hardy as the pilot, Mark Rylance as the yacht's captain, Cillian Murphy as the surviving soldier the yacht picks up, and Kenneth Branagh as the British commander, along with a smattering of unknowns (at least here in America) who will likely appear in a lot more movies after this one. Even pop star Harry Styles proves to be a surprisingly good actor as one of the boys on the beach. However, no one character is the focus here, like Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight or Dom Cobb in Inception. They are all supporting parts in the much broader scheme of the plot, the grand effort to get those soldiers back home. Dialogue is sparse, with Nolan telling the story chiefly through action above everything else. We see the dire situation on the beach, as boats are bombed and people fight to survive, and in the air, where the pilot continues fighting knowing that he doesn't have enough fuel to get home. The story on the yacht lends the film the closest thing it has to an emotional core, as the flare-up between the soldier and the folks who picked him up ends in tragedy, the war hitting home for the civilians who wanted to support their country. Overall, however, this is Nolan doing what he does best, showing viewers a tightly-wound puzzle that comes together just right.

It is a thrill to watch, too. While the film isn't graphically violent like Saving Private Ryan, it is powered by grit and raw intensity, with Nolan's other trademark, his love of practical effects over CGI, shining through here most of all. He delivers robust spectacle like few others, with boats being sunk, soldiers trying not to make a sound as German soldiers start using their position for target practice, and air battles that are some of the best I've ever seen on film. This is an epic in every sense of the word, most of all when witnessed in 70mm IMAX, the film serving as a feature-length advertisement for super-high-definition big screens the way that Avatar did for 3D and The Robe did for CinemaScope. This is a film that puts viewers right on the ground, at sea, and in the air, the action getting right in your face and you meeting the action halfway. It is obvious from watching this the lengths that Nolan and company went to in order to make the film look this damn good without resorting to obvious trickery; to find out that it was shot on a budget of $100 million -- pocket change for today's opulent Hollywood machine -- only made it that much more impressive.

The Bottom Line

A capital-E epic in every sense of the word, Dunkirk is an astounding recreation of a legendary moment in history. While it deserves to be seen on the big screen, the mechanisms of its plotting, and the amount of care and attention that went into every frame, make this a film that will hold up almost as well at home on repeat viewing.

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