Sunday, July 30, 2017

Dunkirk

By Sati. Sunday, July 30, 2017 , , , , , , , ,

(spoilers!)

Every Christopher Nolan's movie is an event. In the world were practically every big, spectacular movie out there is a part of a franchise, Nolan is one of the few who still manages to do something unique. And while Dunkirk is yet another huge movie event that surprises, it surprises in more than one way. Nolan often works with complex stories and world building- the magnificent magic tricks he pulls on the audience throughout The Prestige with the film's multiple twists and misdirections, the complex way to unlock the film's mystery rooted in the infliction of protagonist of Memento, the layered world of dreams in Inception - here the story is simple. Soldiers are in need of rescue. Other soldiers and ordinary people are trying to help them. Meanwhile the enemy is trying to kill them all.

And this time around It's the structure that hides surprises. Dunkirk takes place on the land in a period of a week, on the sea - in a day, and in the air - in an hour. All those pieces of the narrative intertwine. When Cillian Murphy suddenly shows up somewhere else than on Mark Rylance's boat, you realize that because of the structure the film is also not told in linear manner. It's a magnificent trick Nolan pulled, even more magnificent than the plot twists in The Prestige. I was legitimately stunned when I realized the chronology is disrupted and it was a lot of fun trying to figure out what was happening when and where. It also immediately makes the viewer pay more attention because this is where you realize this is unlike any other war movie you've seen. You need to do more here than just watch and listen. You need to give the movie your absolute focus. And this is something that every movie that is made by people this skilled and dedicated should do - demand the audience's focus. And be worthy of it.
We need to constantly wonder - albeit it's in no way as laborious effort as it was in Memento - about what we are seeing and how it fits with other pieces of the story. It keeps you engaged even more so than you already were. And Nolan, the master of movie montages, puts those pieces together in such a way that the intensity is almost hard to bear. It's truly a blessing the film runs 106 minutes because the longer it lasts, the more emotional, relentless and intense it becomes as the gaps between the three pieces become shorter and shorter.

The characters in Dunkirk don't get lengthy, elaborate back stories. We don't see flashbacks with their sweethearts, mothers, kids. We don't see supporting characters praying for their safety. All we see are these men trying to survive the situation. I must say that considering Nolan's writing weaknesses and strengths it's for the best. Even though the characters in his previous films fall in love, you never really felt it. Maybe it's the lack of chemistry between the actors but whenever I watch a Nolan movie I am told someone is in love, I don't actually get that impression from what I am seeing on the screen. There are also themes of grief and loss explored in his films, but again, the emotional side of those grand emotions never really comes through. Thirst for vengeance (Angier in The Prestige), soulless exploitation of others (Natalie in Memento) or the desire to give up (Will in Insomnia) - Nolan does well with those dark urges and emotions. But for me none of his films - in spite of McConaughey and DiCaprio really doing their best in Interstellar and Inception - really shows something good and inspiring in a profoundly real manner. That Inception's ending has the power it has is solely because of the spectacular Time.
And here we have Dunkirk. For the very first time in his career Nolan managed to explore something good about human beings and portray it so movingly and truthfully, in a way that truly resonates and stays with you. You can see it, you're not just told about it. And I think that's because it has to do with so many characters doing something astonishing - yes, we have Alfred doing wonderful things for Bruce in Nolan's The Dark Knight trilogy, but here it's dozens of deeds one more remarkable than the other, all in the face of real horror and danger. That only makes the complaints about the film being "cold" and "not moving" more strange to me.

Lately it has been hard to be optimistic about the world and to believe in people. To believe that they are inherently good, compassionate and brave. We need to be reminded of stories in which people astonished with their capability to do the remarkable. War movie genre is filled with inspiring stories showing bravery under horrific circumstances. Last year's Hacksaw Ridge showed the courage of one soldier who refused to kill and who saved many lives during war. And while often times the civilian courage is present in those films, in Dunkirk while we spend most of the time with the soldiers observing their relentless struggle, it is the bravery of ordinary people and the fact that this story really happened that adds so much heart and such weight to the film.
Amidst all the tension Nolan does the incredible thing - while war surrounds it, it's the humanity that is truly what is being explored here. We see the ugly sides of it - Cillian Murphy's character is traumatized by what he has been through which provokes violence, which leads to tragedy. Harry Styles's Alex and other soldiers are willing to sacrifice someone just because he is not their countryman in order to save their own skin. Because of the man made politics French soldiers aren't being helped by the English and vice versa. But in much larger part Dunkirk shows so beautifully that the bravery of people is truly one of the most incredible marvels of them all.

There are so many instances of this here - of genuine kindness and compassion, on big and small scale. Soldiers cheering as two others make it closer to the rescue when they run on the plank. Men risking their lives to save others and feeling genuine remorse and heartbreak when they are forced to leave few behind. A man who lost his son in a war, now willingly going towards more warfare to rescue people and refusing to turn the boat around because there *might* be a chance a single person is alive. The film's very surprising and deeply affecting scene has Peter lie to Murphy's character. Earlier in the movie he pushed young boy and Peter's friend and in the effect the boy died. But when Murphy's traumatized soldier asks about him Peter lies telling him he will be fine. This man has been through too much. Nolan showing such amount of understanding in someone so young, someone who just lost a friend, makes it even more moving. Same as telling us Mr. Dawson lost his son. The little information we get about these people affect us so much more than if they were buried in the piles of exposition.
In fact there is a whole variety of scenes here where Nolan does surprising and astonishing things - the moment with Georgie is so unpleasant and such a unique thing to happen in a war movie. That boy doesn't die from German bullets or bombs, he dies because of British soldier's PTSD. Then, almost sadistically - given how literally everyone I talked to about this movie loved the character-Nolan makes the audience root for the wheels to come out of Farrier's plane only to have him captured by the Germans in his final moment. There are so many scenes here that add weight to other scenes - the French soldier, who was so smart and cautious, the one who saved others from drowning, drowns himself. And the scene with a soldier walking into the waves to his death, presumably to avoid captivity, fate worse than death, only adds more sadness to Farrier's ending.

This is what makes the film's most emotional moments where something wonderful happens even stronger. It's here where Nolan delivers the most moving scene in any of his film yet - you can probably guess which one I mean already but it's when we see the close up of Kenneth Branagh's Commander Bolton. He is looking at the horizon with dread on his face as Zimmer's amazing music plays horrifying notes. He looks at what is approaching with binoculars. He lowers them. As James D'Arcy's character asks him what he sees, as Zimmer's masterful score finally lets go and the intense beat turns into melody, and as Branagh's eyes fill with tears - he says "home" and we see dozens of boats with civilians coming to the rescue. A scene made so much richer by what Bolton reveals near the ending - again little but such important information. We were told near the beginning that there are 400,000 people left behind and the English expect to rescue 30,000. In the end, because of the extraordinary people and British military heroic efforts, they rescued 338,226 lives. We only get to know Dawson and his son but there is a brilliant little moment when Bolton walks near the boats asking all those people where they came form and when he hears all those places, far away places he is rejoiced and astonished at that bravery, that determination, that willingness to help.
The narrative structure also allows for perhaps the most triumphant moment for the audience to experience in Christopher Nolan film yet. .Some time after Farrier's plane flies away and we believe he landed because his fuel run out, and when all those civilians are there helping - so the stakes and the amount of lives are even higher - a German plane approaches. We again see the shot of Branagh with dread in his eyes, this time closing them and readying himself for death. And then...Farrier returns and takes down the plane. It's just such joy to behold.

There is lots to explore when it comes to this character because this is such brilliant writing, casting and the performance from Hardy. Farrier is our hero. Whenever we see Royal Air Force Zimmer plays the most exciting theme of the soundtrack, so intense and adrenaline rising. Very soon Farrier is the only British pilot left in the air. All those people on the boats, all the soldiers down below, waiting to be attacked - and he is the only one who can help and take down the enemy. We wait for him and when we see him we feel such relief. The heroism he depicts - of knowing he is out of fuel yet continuing to fly, refusing to leave his airplane, the one thing allowing him to protect others - is astonishing.
Nolan said recently he had fun covering most of Hardy's face because he is an actor who can do more with his eyes than others with their whole body. What Hardy does here is nothing short of mesmerizing. He must have less than 20 lines in the entire movie yet the way he is acting with his eyes- the determination as he is shooting the enemy, the gentle concern as he is watching his fellow pilot land and finally the relief when he manages to save others - it's wonderful. The rest of the cast does beautifully as well - a mix of seasoned veterans and actors who had their big screen debut here. It's an incredibly strong ensemble with everyone delivering great performances. Branagh who gets to play the film's warmest character delivers particularly lovely performance.

The film really plays like a thriller film. I have not seen many war movies but I don't think a torpedo has ever looked more frightening. It's also a terrific decision never to show the enemy up close - we see the bombs, the bullets, the torpedoes, the planes, but the enemy is faceless. We never know when he will attack and we desperately want to see the characters we are watching saved. Nolan delivers so many genuinely suspenseful moments here - Collins being trapped in a plane and the soldiers being trapped in a sinking boat that is used for target practice - mercilessly these two pieces edited together - is an absolutely nerve-wrecking sequence.
Hoyte Van Hoytema's cinematography is absolutely gorgeous in particular the way that light is used in so many sequences. The camera is so close to everything, it's astonishing. And Zimmer delivers his best score in years and the most memorable themes since Interstellar. Supermarine, the lenghty theme for the air scenes is incredible, as is the gorgeous Home and the ending eponymous track. There's also Impulse - beautiful track accompanying the scene where Farrier is chasing the enemy aircraft. The combination of the track and the wordless scene really made me feel as if I were watching a very old, classic film, fitting how Nolan apparently watched a lot of silent movies in preparation for Dunkirk where he knew he wanted to keep the dialogue to minimum.

And beyond all of that the film is done in such a way that simply needs to be seen in cinema. I don't even know how the dogfighting scenes and aerial shots were done and having sailed a lot in the past even the scenes shot on shaky boat impressed me. If they even were shot on a shaky boat. That is the thing about Nolan - his films are so immersive and the illusion takes a hold of the audience so strongly you don't even question the reality of what you are watching. When you watch it, it all feels real even if it's DiCaprio infiltrating people's dreams or if the film is asking us to believe there is a machine cloning Hugh Jackman. Nolan is so good at creating the kind of films that truly capture the viewer's attention - either with exceptionally elaborate story or structure and with the help of gifted actors and terrific music.

And while all of Nolan's films have something to admire about them and The Prestige still remains my favorite film of his, Dunkirk is the first movie Nolan made where the strength of the cinematic craft goes hand in hand with the strength of the story and its spirit. Unlike his other great films Dunkirk doesn't just dazzle and makes you think, it  also touches your heart. And the fact that Nolan managed to do that without using any of the tropes or old tricks but instead with so little dialogue, almost no sentimentality, absolutely no flashbacks and no grand speeches? We movie fans like to say there is nothing original in cinema anymore. But Nolan, in Dunkirk, finds a completely different way to move you with a story that in anyone else hands would make for a typical war movie. And there is nothing typical about this film.

Dunkirk
(2017, 106 min)
Plot: Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France are surrounded by the German army and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard

28 comments:

  1. Not usually a fan of war movies, but this sounds great! I should check it out.

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    1. Yes! and in cinema! Hope you'll like it!

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  2. I just got back from seeing the film and.... WHOA!!!!!!! Right now, it's the best film of 2017 and Nolan is on fire! I gotta see it again.

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    1. My second best after Logan but 10/10 nonetheless. Amazing movie, so glad you liked it too!

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  3. Lovely.

    What a fantastic review! You absolutely nailed it. There are so many bold choices here, so much that technically astounding, but what's presented is almost a silent film with character we know little about. And it ALL works.

    As much as I couldn't handle the tension, and was borderline nauseated at times, after reading this, I think I have to see it again. This film, like many of the films Nolan has directed, simply begs for the immersive sound of a cinema, and obviously a massive screen.

    You mentioned it before, but after reading this review and considering it, I've come to better understand how impressive it is what Hardy does here. He's given only a few lines, most of which our indecipherable, and basically half a face...and he's as compelling as anything else on screen. Incredible!

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    1. YES! I actually loved it even more the second time around when I could really focus on everything. And when you know what happens to certain characters the previous scenes with them have so much meaning

      Even less than half a face... :) Guys' eyes are amazing. He always does this in his roles but he can express practically every single emotion there is just with his eyes. Eddie fucking Redmayne has one note even if he is standing naked in front of mirror with his dick tucked between his legs.

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    2. Yeah, I'm gonna take your word on Redmayne and his taped up pecker.

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    3. You should double feature it with homeless one :)

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  4. I thought this was a little bland. Visuals look great on the big screen though.

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  5. Dunkirk was so much better than I expected, mainly because I didn't expect it to be so simple, like you said. One of the people I went with said it wasn't all that scary because there wasn't a lot of blood, gore, etc - I felt the exact opposite way, I found it terrifying because Dunkirk practically takes the POV of fear. I dreamt of freaking bodies and ships that night, because it was SO immersive. Honestly I think war never looked as scary on film, just because it's such an intimate approach to fear.

    I agree with what you said about Nolan and his portrayal of goodness in humans, that emotional connection with the audience, I never get that from him, so Dunkirk surprised me too on that front. The narrative devices, the score, the cinematography - all amazing! And Hardy, my god, I can't wait for oscar season.

    THAT SAID, Branagh's face is just begging for a meme 😂

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    1. This is very well put! Yes, really the film plays out like a horror film and so many scenes feel downright claustrophobic particularly when the torpedo hits that ship and they are trapped in there. Nolan would make an amazing horror film, kinda hopes he tries that genre in his career.

      I really nominate both Hardy and Branagh at that point. What Hardy manages to do with so little leaves an impression far more lasting than what other actors manage to do with so much more.

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  6. Great review! I feel like it already has the Sound Oscars in the bag.

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    1. Tank you! I hope so, that was amazing work right here

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  7. I really have to see this film now. Phenomenal review.

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    1. I hope you get to catch it in cinema!

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  8. It's pity you don't do reviews like this more sati, this is a pretty effing awesome write-up. Nothing else to add really, just yup, yup and yup! Great stuff, though for me this beats The Prestige for me :D

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    1. Thank you! I wish I had more time...or there were more films worth writing about. For me The Prestige is better because the script there is just so impressively intricate. And until Logan it was Hugh's best performance.

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    2. You know I totally missed the timeline thing you mentioned. On second watch I don't know how!

      Hrrm, I'll have to re-visit The Prestige. You are certainly giving me a lot of stuff to re-watch with a fresh pair of eyes! :)

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    3. It is easy to miss! I was so I don't know overwhelmed the first time I was watching it that it literally required second viewing and I'm sure third one will show me new things too. It's actually very similar with The Prestige as the movie also demands repeated viewings that are very rewarding and so much fun

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  9. Enjoyed reading your review and agree needs to be seen on the big screen. Dunkirk is top 5 in Nolan's filmography for me, though turning real peoples struggles into popcorn entertainment did feel a bit inappropriate. The counter argument is the filmmakers are honoring these individuals in a respectful manner.

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    1. I didn't think it was popcorn entertainment per se...the films had tons of heart and really showed all those soldiers with a lot of dignity, even in terrible moments you could understand them

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    2. Yeah, it's a drama, but also a thrill ride. Agree Dunkirk is depicted with dignity, and it's not like the film was insensitively made few months after the actual event!

      Still, I think Hollywood profiting from people's death is wrong, and Mark Wahlberg indicated the same in this article about another movie:
      http://www.starwipe.com/article/principled-mark-wahlberg-refuses-profit-tragedy-un-2573

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    3. Didn't Walhberg once assaulted someone? Those Hollywood types really should keep opinions to themselves, in some cases when they have certain history it's just comes off in poor taste

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  10. Amazing war film, never seen anything like it. Nolan's time bending has reached it's zenith. Sort of reminds me of the first time I was Jean-Luc Godard's jump cutting but totally different.

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    1. So glad the film has so many fans! But it does look to be one of Nolan's most divisive with some strange complaints about characterization floating around

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  11. I had a peak into your review first and finally watched it yesterday. so I knew about the timeline and paid extra attention, haha! it was intense, to say the least. sitting through it with a full bladder made for a extra gripping experience.. brilliant review, thank you.

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    1. I actually did have to pee at the beginning of my second screening of this but completely forgot about that once the movie started because it's so intense :D

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