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Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Director Report Card: Christopher Nolan (2017)

10. Dunkirk

I'll admit, my enthusiasm for Christopher Nolan has waned over the years. Once one of my favorite directors, I now greet a new Nolan film with a somewhat resigned feeling. It's not because he's stopped making good movies. I was one of those folks that really liked “Interstellar,” after all. Maybe it's just because the director receiving constant praise from especially enthusiastic – and at times insufferable – fan boys. My growing disinterest, as difficult to explain as it is, actually kept me from seeing his latest film in the theater. Considering Nolan shot the movie with a widescreen theatrical viewing in mind, it's probably a shame I'm only just now getting to it on Blu-Ray. Then again, from early on, “Dunkirk” was pegged as an Oscar contender, so I knew I'd be watching it around February.

The year is 1940 and World War II rages on in Europe. Germany has recently taken France, trapping a huge number of Allied soldiers behind enemy lines, in the town of Dunkirk. Rescue missions are on their way but the stranded men must survive constant attacks by the enemy. Tommy waits with hundreds of others on the beach, a handful of men being carried off at a time. By sea, many different boats – including a civilian vessel operated by Mr. Dawson and his sons – hope to arrive in time to help. In the air, planes cross the English channel, hoping to protect the endangered men. Among them are two British fighter pilots, Farrier and Collins, who are low on fuel and under attack.

The war movie genre brings with it certain expectations. World War II still carries heavy enough historical significance in America that a large deal of seriousness is expected from films about it. Yet there's enough distance from that conflict that many war movies become macho action fantasies as well. With “Dunkirk,” Christopher Nolan completely avoids either direction. His film  re-frames the war movie totally as a thriller about survival. The soldiers aren't action heroes but men desperate to make it out alive. Nolan never undersells the sacrifice of the men who actually died at Dunkirk. However, he tosses off the weight of stuffy historical drama by turning the story into a quick-paced thriller. It's a successful spin on a difficult to tackle genre.

If he's not directing an adaptation of some sort – and even when he is, some times – Christopher Nolan sure likes to throw in stories with twisting narrative gimmicks. “Dunkirk” isn't non-linear or especially hard to follow. However, the director's love of multi-layered stories appears in the multiple perspective from which he tells the tale. “Dunkirk” quickly introduces the three corners of its narrative early on, giving each a title card – The Mole, the Sea, and the Air – and, as is always the case with Nolan, hopes the audience can keep up. The three stories play out on their own before coming together in the last act, in a way that feels especially satisfying.

Splitting the film's narrative in three directions also serves another purpose. “Dunkirk” is, pointedly, not a character driven film. There's very little dialogue in the movie. Tommy, as played by Fionn Whitehead, is our default protagonist and he barely talks throughout. The Germans are never portrayed on-screen, only appearing as enemy bombers or boats, acting like a partially unseen malevolent force out of a horror movie. Nolan's focus is, instead, on creating the maximum amount of suspense and visceral intensity as possible through sound design and visuals alone.

By dropping the audience directly into the story, Nolan accomplishes something else. The first scene shows a group of soldiers fleeing down a street, each of them being picked off by enemy fire, until only one survives. From there, the Mole portion of “Dunkirk” remains focused on soldiers running through a war, trying to survive. Nolan's camera remains tight on the men through one tense situation after another. Bombs explode down the beach as they hit the ground, ducking. Two soldiers struggle in the water, as a wayward boat floats towards them, threatening to crush them both. Later, the ship taking them away from Dunkirk is torpedoed. From there, the same group of men are left in a hull, slowly filing with water. By remaining so focused on this perspective, Nolan gives the audience a good idea of what life during wartime actually is like. It's a constant, terrifying struggle to survive.

If the Mole portion of “Dunkirk” keeps its characters intentionally vague, the Sea sections are the film's most personable part. This element zeroes in on a small group of men, civilians heading into a war zone. Here, “Dunkirk” grapples with the personal sacrifices made during war time in a more psychological sense. The Dawson family picks up a soldier, who is shell-shocked and terrified of heading back towards Dunkirk. He quickly gets into a conflict with the Dawson family. The father, we learn, has already lost a son. Throughout the course of the story, he will loose another. Here, we see the heart of a film that sometimes comes too close to being chilly. “Dunkirk,” when not focuses on visceral tension, is equally willing to show how the weight of the war hovers over normal people.

With the sections in the sky above the sea, “Dunkirk” zeroes in on another element of the war. Much like the boys on the beach, the Air section shows men right in the middle of the conflict. Their planes are shot at. They are slowly loosing fuel. One of the two men is shot down, landing in the water, his cockpit flooding while he struggles to escape his seats. Yet there's also an odd isolation to these scenes. The men are miles above the sea. They are alone in their cockpits. They are only accompanied by disembodied voices from their radio and the roaring sounds from outside. They have to make hard decisions, counting only on themselves. This is an interesting approach to aerial combat, creating tension by zeroing in on the alienation the men feel in their flying vehicles.

“Dunkirk's” determination not to explore its characters' back stories extends to its casting. There are very few big names in the cast. Perhaps the film's most recognize performer, Tom Hardy as fighter pilot Farrier, spends most of his screen time with an oxygen mask covering half his face. (Though I suppose Harry Styles, formerly of boy band One Direction, is better known to some people. Styles actually does pretty well, by the way.) So most of the actors have to show their skills more in their faces and body language. Fionn Whitehead shows his youth and inexperience. Hardy is all steely determination and unspoken doubt.

Still, the film does contain some more typically showy performances. Kenneth Branagh, as the voice of authority on the beach, has to make difficult choices during the hardest time possible. The Sea portion features some strong acting. Mark Rylance is great as the patriarch who quietly holds his family together as they cross the sea, keeping his personal pain inside. Cillian Murphy goes in the opposite direction, playing the traumatized soldier as someone who is shaken apart by his experiences. Barry Keoghan is also very good as the teen boy who accompanies the Dawsons on their voyage, an idealistic young man in a film who's depiction of war is anything but.

Visually, “Dunkirk” represents Christopher Nolan at his most Kubrick-ian. He keeps his camera close on his performers but without going inside their heads. This makes a film that sometimes feels quite cold, a bracing experience focused on creating thrills, showing us how everyone is feeling through their actions, not thoughts. This sometimes extends to dropping below licking waves or into burning fires. Matching this approach is Hans Zimmer's score. Similar to his work on “Interstellar,” ticking clock sounds and rumbling noise is employed to create a film that feels as taunt as possible.

Yet “Dunkirk” shows that it does have a heart, and a big one, in a most unexpected way. Towards the film's back half, a fleet of ships arrive on Dunkirk to rescue the stranded soldiers. Some of the ships are military but many of them are personal crafts. At this point, the score swells with feeling and emotion. The supporting heroes cheer. It should be hokey but, somehow, this plea to wartime patriotism – of a country's population putting their own lives on the line to save their soldiers – is quite effective. “Dunkirk” may keep its heroes at arm's lengths but its certainly not cut off from the feelings a military conflict can make people feel.

“Dunkirk” is also excellently paced. If people complained that “Interstellar” was too long, it seems Christopher Nolan took that criticism to heart. “Dunkirk” runs an economical 106 minutes, making it one of the shorter Best Picture nominees this year. It's a story constantly on the move, leaving little room for slow periods. Maybe that's why the film, a chilly thriller about a very specific point in time without any big stars, managed to become a huge box office success. Some have called it one of the film's best years. Some have even gone so far to say it's one of the best World War II movies ever made. I don't know about that. “Dunkirk” is a bit too impersonal for me at times. However, Nolan certainly succeeded at his goal of making a bracing experience, a top-notch thriller that puts the viewer in the place of a scared solider. [Grade: B]

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