Dunkirk (2017)

July. 2017. Summer Movie Season is well underway…and there’s just so damn much to choose from! Just today, I had my choice of ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’, ‘Spiderman – Homecoming’, and ‘Valerian: City of 1000 Planets’. These are all flicks I want, and intend, to see on The Big Screen. But…as much of my jam as these movies may be…one emerged that….ahem…trumped them all. Christopher Nolan’s WW2 epic, ‘Dunkirk’. As I’m an admirer of a large chunk of Nolan’s filmography and a sucker for all things World War 2 (noted in many a past review), this one had my attention from the get-go. Nolan has proven time and again that he knows his shit behind the camera. Many of his screenplays (often co-written with his brother Jonathan) are surprisingly clever in their structure (*see ‘Memento’ or ‘Inception’) and content, and he knows how to do ‘epic’. And as historical war stories go, the story of the mass, improvised evacuation of the besieged French beach town of Dunkirk in the early summer of 1940 certainly qualifies as ‘epic’. The well-crafted trailers for this one knew what they were doing and deftly got across a sense of bleak grandeur and tension-building, that I’m happy to say translated beautifully to the final product.
When 400 000 Allied troops ( largely British and French) were shoved back in an aggressive push by determined Nazi forces, literally being forced back into the sea, limited resources, vicious aerial bombardment and rough weather put them at a lethal disadvantage and it was up to a make-shift armada of civilian boats to bravely steam to the rescue…despite bitter odds. In this scenario, we witness the unfolding of 3 different stories: A young soldier named ‘Alex’ (Harry Styles) tries to get off the coast in whatever way possible, through all the danger thrown at the beach by the Germans. An RAF Spitfire pilot named ‘Farrier’ (Tom Hardy) pushes his plane and himself to the absolute limit in a bid to protect the civilian flotilla from lurking German aircraft. A duty-bound civilian, ‘Mr. Dawson’ (Mark Rylance), along with his teenage son and his son’s friend, motors across the English Channel in his yacht to help, picking up a shell-shocked and possibly dangerous British officer (Cillian Murphy) from a sinking ship along the way. There are a couple other small story threads the weave in and out as well, but those 3 were the focus.
‘Dunkirk’ is a VERY good film, in some ways, great. It’s one of Nolan’s shortest flicks but the 1 hour 47 minute run-time is perfect. It all feels very lean and narratively economical. Having said that, I will admit that I was thrown off by the non-linear structure. I thought I was seeing some REALLY shitty continuity errors, but then I realized that Nolan was playing with the time-line and not presenting everything in 3 parallel, matched story-lines, all leading to the same fate at the same time. Not the case here. Many times, we see the same event play out, just at different times and from differing perspectives. As soon as I vibed to that groove, it was all good in da hood! At its base parts, the 3 main stories are VERY simple, but it’s in how Nolan chose to arrange them that makes it interesting and, dare I say it….experimental! Which I loved! A big budget Summer Tent-pole flick…and they dared be a little ‘different’ in their approach. I would’ve been just fine with a straight-forward narrative, but the effect here is a little jarring…and I mean that as a compliment, in that the unpredictability of the scenario is translating through to the movies structure. Some peeps may be put off with that, especially when Title Cards for locations come up like ‘The Mole – one week’, ‘The Air – one hour’, and you haven’t been given enough to reference what that means in the time-line of the movie. But this is a brilliant element to several of Nolan’s scripts, so in hindsight it makes sense. I could also see people taking issue in the blatant lack of overt characterization. Honestly…we don’t get ‘characters’ in this movie…we just see people maneuvering through all this tension and carnage. There’s no exposition about who they are outside of this situation, we just see them in it and how they react to what’s happening around them, and it worked just fine for me.
From a technical stand-point, this film had me giddy in what it was putting on screen. As noted, I’m a WW2 buff, especially the Air War, so to see what looked like 3 actual Supermarine Spitfires dogfighting a Heinkel HE111 and 2 Messerschmidt ME109s over The Channel was awesome!! Completely convincing, and appropriately tense and grand. We get lots of gorgeous wide shots of the action, often from an onlookers perspective in shots that take a little time showing us stuff before suddenly cutting away. This is DEFINITELY NOT a Michael Bay movie! I saw this in a very respectable format (UltraADX with 7.1), but I can understand why critics are pushing audiences toward IMAX, especially considering how much of the film was shot, at source, in the IMAX format. Being strapped to the the wing of a ‘Spit’ as it ducks and weaves after a twisting Nazi fighter was VERY cool!….but so were the long shots of desperate soldiers milling about on a wide, debris-strewn beach or the sequences of various civilians boats maneuvering through the waves and weather.
To compliment the slick visuals, Nolan and Co. crafted a very impressive sound design. The first time gunfire is heard (from off-screen), I nearly jumped outta my skin! ‘Dunkirk’ officially had my attention only minutes in. Elements like the throaty roar of the ‘Spits’ Rolls Royce engines or the nasty crack of rifle fire bursting through the metal hull of a boat came through clear as a bell…and with some ‘teeth’. Equally impressive were the moments when the sound was dropped out, and we witnessed in either silence or with some tense score pushing the situation to a breathless crescendo. The music, which makes superb use of the ticking of a pocket-watch as it’s base, was pitch-perfect and effortlessly complimented what was happening on screen.
I’m racking my feeble mind for any real Negatives I saw in ‘Dunkirk’, and the only thing I come to, for some other people, would be the Tarantino-esque jumping in the time-line. It quickly grew on me when I figured it out…but others may feel put-off. This may be silly, but others may also have issue with the mere PG-13 rating. Counting ‘Hamburger Hill’ (1987), ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998), and ‘Black Hawk Down’ (2001) as three of my Favorite Ever war films, it’s easy to demand realistic gore from a combat flick, and I could think of a couple examples in this one where some nasty ‘blood n guts’ would’ve added to the ‘impact’, but Nolan got across the wounds and deaths in a way where what happened was harsh, but what we actually saw merely suggested it…usually quite effectively.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Dunkirk’ and I got what I hoped I would get from it. I got the WW2 grandeur, coupled with solid attention to gritty detail (a couple small goofs aside) and a simple but tension-filled narrative. I got a flick that jumped straight into the action and didn’t fuck around with unnecessary narrative ‘padding’…it just put us there. I also got a surprising dose of masterful aerial cinematography and choreography that had my inner 8 year old jumping in my seat, all bolstered by some terrific sound design and music…and not tons of bullshit CGI! I got a World War Two film that I suspect will become as highly regarded as any of the ‘war classics’ out there for all the reasons I listed above…and more. Another highly impressive entry by a true genius of a director, Christopher Nolan. The man can successfully direct just about anything…and ‘Dunkirk’ goes a long way to support that theory. Given the scope of the visuals, I STRONGLY recommend this film for The Big Screen…biggest you can find…it’s worth it!

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