Monday, July 24, 2017

In Theaters: DUNKIRK (2017)

(US - 2017)

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D'Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Joachim ten Haaf, Matthew Marsh, Damien Bonnard, Will Attenborough, Bill Milner, voice of Michael Caine. (PG-13, 106 mins)

Christopher Nolan's painstakingly-constructed DUNKIRK brings a harrowing you-are-there immediacy to the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk with an intensity that plays like a feature-length version of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN's opening sequence at Normandy. At 106 minutes, it's Nolan's shortest film since his 1998 pre-MEMENTO debut FOLLOWING, but it never feels less than epic in its presentation and its ambition. One of the few true purists left among A-list filmmakers, Nolan uses the barest minimum of CGI in DUNKIRK, instead going the classic route, shooting on film--mostly with IMAX cameras--with real extras, real locations, real ships, and real planes. For those who don't spend a lot of time watching old movies where such things were more commonplace, the difference is immediately, staggeringly obvious. There's a tangible sense of reality to the aerial shots and the long/wide shots up and down the beach, filled with thousands of extras as British soldiers waiting to be rescued that would've been compromised if done digitally. Nolan's approach to the film stands as proof that no matter how far CGI has progressed (WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES is the current standard-bearer as far as fantasy cinema goes), when it comes to recreations of historical events such as this WWII story, the old ways remain the most effective.

There's a scene very late in the 1980 gangster classic THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY where British mob boss Bob Hoskins, trying to sever his ties with gangland past, chews out his New York Mafia partners for backing out of a business deal over fears that his criminal empire will interfere with their legit interests. "Us British," he explains, "We're used to a bit more vitality, imagination, touch of the Dunkirk spirit, know what I mean?" The Dunkirk spirit is present throughout, as Nolan presents three intercut narratives over the course of DUNKIRK: "The Mole," takes place one week before the evacuation; "The Sea" takes place one day before; and "The Air" one hour before. Of course, all three eventually come together, and while it may seem gimmicky, it's in line with Nolan's recurrent motif of playing with time elements (so important to MEMENTO, INCEPTION, and INTERSTELLAR). It works beautifully, with imagery in one tying into and complementing something going on in another, and with occasional characters popping up in other sections as the threads begin to overlap. It's not confusing at all, and it's becoming one of the things that make Christopher Nolan films so unique. "The Mole" focuses on young soldiers Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and later, Alex (One Direction's Harry Styles, who's surprisingly solid in his dramatic acting debut) at Dunkirk, where 400,000 mostly British soldiers are waiting to be evacuated after German forces have pushed them to the edge of the town, making them sitting ducks for German air raids. "The Sea" follows mild-mannered Dawson (BRIDGE OF SPIES Oscar-winner Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter's shy, introverted friend George (Barry Keoghan) as they take Dawson's boat out to sea, joining other civilians and Navy-commandeered private vessels on a dangerous mission to Dunkirk to rescue their officers. "The Air" centers on two Spitfire pilots--Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden)--left on their own after the squad leader is shot down, heading to Dunkirk to take out German planes, with Collins forced to land on the water and Farrier playing guessing games with his fuel after his gauge is damaged in a skirmish.

Nolan presents the stories in a clinical, matter-of-fact fashion. There's very little in the way of personal backstories of the characters (one emotional bit involving Dawson's reasons for partaking int he rescue are mentioned almost as an afterthought), with everything taking place in the moment. While it's debatable whether this leaves a cold chilliness to the human element, it works in the context of DUNKIRK because nothing matters but the evacuation. That doesn't mean there aren't powerful moments for some of the characters, whether it's outcast George going along in order to feel good about contributing to the war effort; or a shell-shocked sole survivor of a U-Boat attack (Cillian Murphy) picked up by Dawson; or the sympathetic Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) demonstrating true leadership in making sure every last soldier is evacuated from the beach. Nolan doesn't engage in jingoism or over-the-top chest-thumping here. The word "Nazi" is never said and German officers are never seen, and if this were made back in the '60s, it would be one of the very few WWII movies with no role for Karl-Otto Alberty. This is a nuts-and-bolts chronicle of the triumph of the human spirit, of a nation pulling together to do what it needs to do, even if it means civilians putting their lives at risk. With very little in the way of dialogue--Nolan's script was only 76 pages long--the film relies on visuals and sound design to tell its story, whether it's the constant, repetitive Hans Zimmer cues with a subtle clock ticking audible in the mix almost constantly, Hoyte van Hotema's cinematography showcasing the vast forever of the sea and the beach, and the terrifying, deafening shriek of German planes as they fly overhead, DUNKIRK transports the audience to another time and place. It also exists in a less divisive time when everyone did their part, and it's only fitting that it's made in such an old-school fashion. A defiant and very welcome "they don't make 'em like they used to anymore" exercise, DUNKIRK establishes Nolan as arguably the best commercial filmmaker working today, at this point boasting an almost Kubrick-ian track record of consistent high quality (the exception being the Nolan-produced sci-fi dud TRANSCENDENCE, which he had the sense to turn over to cinematographer-turned-debuting director Wally Pfister) and one of the few auteurs of his caliber doing everything humanly possible to preserve the classical notion of cinema as it's always been known.

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