Saturday, March 25, 2023

Dunkirk (2017)

There's a long strand of irony running through the history of Film.  I suppose a good way to sum it up is with the maxim: "What's hip today, may tomorrow be passe".  The records of Tinseltown are littered with candidates who were once considered "the most important flick".  The one picture you had to see if you wanted to be considered serious about movies.  Cut to the present moment and most of them barely cast a reflection in the rear view mirror.  These are the offerings that had their moment once upon a time, and now somehow found their way somewhere nearer the bargain basement bin of cinematic glory.  

Off the top of my head, a few that I can recall are such examples as: American Beauty, Shakespeare in Love, Sky Captain and the World of TomorrowHugo and The Aviator (both directed by Martin Scorsese), and once acclaimed experiments like The Artist come to mind.  Nowadays, I think we have to remind ourselves that works like this still exist, every now and then.  I can't help wondering if the film we're about to look at today falls into that category?  Christopher Nolan is still no stranger to movie-goers, of course.  Just the name alone is able to conjure up some favorite image.  Whether it's Terrance Stamp on a revenge spree, Heath Ledger in the role of his life, or maybe the earlier, gritty Noir spectacle of a picture like Followed, Nolan has gotten lucky so far.  He's still has enough fond memories allow him a career in this business.

I'm just curious how far all that good will and its memory extends.  If anyone recalls Nolan these days, its as one in a long line of directors who have lent their talents to bringing the fabled Gotham Cape and Cowl to life on the big screen.  Something tells me its no real secret if a film like The Dark Knight becomes the one thing everybody will remember Nolan best for.  That just leaves the question of what about all of his other work?  Where does a film like Dunkirk fit into all of this?  Does it belong on the list given above?  I think it's best if we take a close look at it, and see what secrets it holds, and what it say about it's quality.  Maybe it doesn't deserve to slip all that far through the cracks of memory lane.

The Plot.

On May 10th, 1940, the army of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany drove the Allied French and English armed forces to the very tip edge of occupied France. The Allies found themselves stranded on a strip of beach in the little French town of Dunkirk. This strip of land was so close to England that on a clear day, it was possible to see the fabled white, chalk cliffs of Dover. With the Allies trapped between the advancing Nazi forces, their backs to the sea, British prime minister Winston Churchill authorized a series of naval evacuations that was able to evacuate 338,226 men, among them, French, Polish, and Belgian, as well as English. While initially seen as a military failure, later historians have wondered if Dunkirk might have been the site of the battle that ultimately helped the Allies triumph in World War II.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk doesn’t provide answers for those questions. The director is more concerned with telling a series of interconnected personal stories. The first story concerns the struggles of Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a British soldier who tries everything he can think of to get off the titular beach. The second plot thread concerns Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), an ordinary citizen of Great Britain who decides to take his sizable yacht out on a rescue expedition to the Allied forces just across the channel. With Dawson are his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and George (Barry Keoghan), a local neighbor who, he hopes, might “have” his “name in the paper”. The final plot thread concerns Spitfire pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), tasked with making sure the Luftwaffe cause no trouble for the evacuation in progress.  Separately, all each and every one of these individuals is concerned with just one goal: survival.  Taken together, they might have just helped make history.

Conclusion:  A Less Than Worthy Effort.

Something happened as I was re-watching Nolan's movie for this article.  I sort of found myself asking an interesting question.  How exactly do you judge a War Film?  I'm not talking about a documentary on D-Day, or the Blitz here.  Instead, I mean fictional depictions of these real life conflicts within a cinematic medium.  How to you rate that sub-genre of films devoted to weaving fictional narratives around real battles?  I almost want to say there's a kind of unintentional trick to a question like this.  On the one hand, it's commonsense enough, especially if you want to know if a film is worth your time and money.  At the same time, you begin to realize you are left with a set of fictional circumstances that are still drawn from real world history.  It's then that you begin to wonder just what is the right way to both watch and tell any story that derives from all of that?  I don't know how this must sound.  It's just something that crossed my mind as I was watching today's film unfold.  It left me with a lot to think about, and so what I'm going to say here shouldn't be taken as the final word on the subject.  Rather it's just a preliminary idea that others can, and probably should build off on the more thought is given to it.

So far, the best I've got goes as follows.  There are plenty of ways to tell stories centered around a war.  Things are probably a lot simpler in the case of books like Lord of the Rings, where the conflict is wholly imaginary.  In such cases, there's not that much to talk about or fret over.  It's when we get to stories that are drawn or take inspiration from real life that things get complicated.  Right now, the best I can offer is that when it comes to a film like Dunkirk, the criteria you should be on the lookout for is whether or not the story does well enough by history.  I mean does the narrative tell itself in a way that honors the sacrifices made by those who fought for a just cause, or else pay homage to the victims of the war as whole, or in particular?  It's not much, yet it's all I can think of in terms of a good way to judge a film like this.  I can think of other war related films where these benchmarks might have to give way to a different set of criteria altogether, yet a film like Nolan's appears to present a much simpler, straightforward context.  No one in this film is really in danger of losing their humanity in pursuit of a dubious goal.  This is not a film like Apocalypse Now or Bridge on the River Kwai.  All we're dealing with here is a bunch of grunts who just want to go home, and nothing else.  The inherent, and often troubling questions of morality that war always forces on us are less of an issue here than elsewhere.

So all that means is the director has a lot of an easier time of it.  In theory, this means all that Nolan has to do is find the right way into his material and then stick with it.  So that raises the next question.  What kind of gateway entrance has the director found in which to tell his story?  Well, Nolan has made some interesting creative choices here.  The film starts out more or less at the point where the real history began.  We open with a set of British soldiers making a slow retreat through an abandoned residential neighborhood in Dunkirk, France itself.  It doesn't take long before the invading Nazis get the drop on the them, forcing them to flee for their lives.  Just one of the troop survives to make their way to a beach which serves as the evacuation point for the allied forces.  The audience is then shown a title card which reads: "The Mole, One Week".  It's referring to two jetties, or "moles", that marked out the escape point for the fleeing British, French, and Dutch troops.  It's a bit of a technical point, yet so far, everything seems explanatory enough.  We're here to see the story of this one soldier, Tommy, as he struggles to make his way off the beach and back home to Britain.  To be fair, that's a logical assumption, and it is part of the movie's plot.  It's also just one point in its overall strategy.

Not long after Tommy has reached the (very relative) safety of the beach, the story jumps to another section of the battle represented by yet another title card: "The Sea: One Day".  Here we meet the next important group of characters in the drama.  It's Mark Rylance's Mr. Dawson and his two helpers.  They function as fictional stand-ins for the real life Flotilla Army charged with getting Britain's troops safely off the Dunkirk beach.  All of this information gets imparted as the audience watches Rylance's character first make ready for sail, and then quickly depart for the field of battle.  After that another jump cut occurs in which we meet the final two important players in the story.  It's the two RAF pilots played by Hardy and Lowden.  Their part is given the title of: "The Air: One Hour".  Each of these chapter sub-headings (for lack of a better word) is our first hint of Nolan's narrative strategy for this film.  If the words week, day, and hour aren't enough of a clue to what's going on, then I guess you'll just have to hope the audience figures out what's going on the minute night begins to fall at one point during Tommy's segment of the story, while it always remains broad daylight in Dawson and Collins part of the narrative.  That's because Nolan seems to have taken a leaf from Citizen Kane as far as narrative structure is concerned.  It's the type of story that jumps back and forth in it's timeline.

It's the first hint of unconventionality in the film, and to this day I still wonder how most in the audience are going to take it.  I was able to keep up with whatever was going on from start to finish.  However, I can also see how most viewer will find such creative choices either confusing or off-putting enough to take them out of the experience.  From there, things just get more interesting.  Here is perhaps where that criteria I mentioned above for judging a film like this came into play, or at least it did for me.  As the film went on, I found myself comparing and contrasting.  Seeing how it stacked up to other efforts in the sub-genre.  The benchmark I kept returning to was Saving Private Ryan.  I've no clue how that must sound.  Maybe I'm open to the question of whether or not I'm being all that fair?  Isn't it a mistake to try and match Nolan's efforts here up with those of the earlier project?  It probably is on some level.  The funny thing is how even if this is true, there were moments during the re-watch when a question just kept nagging at me.  Let me give you a for instance.  There's a point early in the film where Mark Rylance rescues a character listed simply as "The Shivering Soldier" (played by Cillian Murphy), and it's clear he's shell-shocked by all that he's seen.  So they lock him away.

This is a plot point that turns out to be somewhat major in terms of the movie's "Sea" segment.  As this character's actions will later go on to determine how things shape up later on when fiction dovetails with actual history, and the actual recovery operation begins in earnest.  What happens is the soldier begins to suffer a breakdown, which is exacerbated when he realizes he's been essentially locked up in what amounts to a makeshift brig, even if it is for his own safety.  He manages to find an escape hatch, and then there's a brief scuffle in which he gets one of his rescuers killed.  It's meant to be one of the dramatic highlights of the movie, and Nolan handles these scenes in an interesting way.  The whole thing plays out in this sort of brisk economic fashion.  I guess I can't call it bad, or anything, and yet I do wonder if things got a bit rushed there?  It's meant to be a devastating moment, and then all of a sudden the scene switches and we're back with Tommy on the Mole, waiting for the caravan to arrive.

I'm more than willing to bet Nolan's heart was in the right place when he made those scenes, and yet perhaps they could have used a bit of work.  You can tell the director wants to give it his all, and yet the final product just comes off as too rushed and frenetic for its own good.  The filmmaker seems to have been faced with a choice between economy and narrative, and in choosing to opt for the latter, the former seems to suffer a bit as a consequence.  Perhaps its because of all these reasons that as I was watching this moment unfold, in particular, I found myself wondering: "What would someone like Spielberg do with a scenario like this"?  Again, this may sound unfair, yet it's just the way the whole thing plays out that kind begs the question.  It's as if Nolan himself forced me to ponder such an idea.  'Cause here's the deal.  One of the best attributes that I think guys like Spielberg don't get enough credit for is an almost uncanny ability at characterization.  His best work (even when dealing with such an inherently "pulp" character like Indiana Jones) are littered with three dimensional personalities that are laid out in such a way that you always wind up caring about what happens to them, whether it's good or bad.  In terms of War Films, this is nowhere better on display than in Private Ryan.  The whole thing goes right for where you live on a visceral level, and then the director proceeds to tear your heart out.

I can't help thinking it was this same level that Nolan was striving for in his own efforts.  And then it's like he just blinked and went on autopilot, or something.  It's like he can't quite find the way into his material in the way he wants to, or at least not with the skill that Spielberg had.  To return to "The Shivering Soldier" as an example of what I mean, let's try and imagine how the director of E.T. would have handled that scenario.  Spielberg probably wouldn't have been in any big rush here.  He would have found a way to put the audience inside the Soldier's head the moment he first appears onscreen.  From there, we'd be sharing his view and outlook as he is first rescued, and then locked up.  

Uncle Steve would then leave us with the Soldier in that locked room as he starts to realize what's happening around him.  From there, Spielberg would draw on the techniques of filmmakers like Hitchcock to highlight the inner turmoil of the character, and force us to watch it all.  The camera angles would become claustrophobic, possibly looking at the Soldier from a ceiling shot as he starts bouncing himself off the walls in growing desperation.  We'd be forced to sit and watch as a potentially good trooper starts to royally lose it, and then we're torn between empathizing with him, and being worried we're locked in with someone who could soon become a danger to both himself and others.  And you can pretty much guarantee that Spielberg would be able to stage all this with an underlying sense of trademark empathy.

That's the kind of vantage point and overall style that I think a film like this needs in order to succeed.  It has to be able to find whatever the right ways are to make us care about what's happening to these people in what was an actual life or death situation.  The fact that Nolan always seems to be struggling with just this crucial issue is a tell on the film's overall quality, and that's not entirely a credit to him. Throughout the entire runtime, it's the same problem, over and again.  We'll see a set of characters encountering a series of situations that are clearly meant to be harrowing, life threatening scenarios, and yet the same cardinal flaw that you can commit in a war film keeps cropping up.  Everything just stays flat up there, on the screen.  I never felt involved in the way I was while watching Spielberg's film.  

To give a better example of this, let's take the character of Tommy, once more.  In a way, he's the closest thing this film has to a Private Ryan stand-in.  All of the worst stuff in the film happens to him, yet he emerges unscathed.  That part I can't complain about, as there's no inherent reason why a minor detail like that should matter.  The real issue is that I never get the sense that any of this has left something like a major, life-changing impact on him as a protagonist.  By the end of Spielberg's film, you're given a very important idea of how the war has effected the title character, even up to his old age.  In Nolan's case, however, the main lead can't seem to tell which direction he's supposed to be headed in by the time the credits role.  I don't ask for realism in a character, though I was hoping for a better sense of who they were by the time the resolution comes around.  I got none of that here, just a blank cypher.

That's really the whole issue with Nolan's efforts here.  None of it results in people or situations that I can find any real reason to care about.  Again, realism of situation or character has nothing to do with it.  It's just the director winds up being able to bring neither his cast or the real history alive in any meaningful way.  It's kind of like watching a parade of mannequins at a theme park attraction go through the motions, if I'm being honest.   Maybe now you begin to see why I kept bringing up Spielberg in comparison to this film.  And also why I couldn't help wondering if I was being unfair in doing so.  The kicker here is that we seem to be dealing with a case where, even if I hadn't decided to measure him up against a better film, I probably still would have come away thinking that Nolan has made one tactical error too many, and let a potentially good idea slip through his fingers.  In that sense, this looks to be an idea that got away.  I wish this wasn't the case, and yet this is how it's all turned out.

I can recall  time when I didn't use to have this reaction.  When I saw the film for the first time, I came away impressed, for the most part.  However, even back then there was always this lingering caveat about the whole experience.  I knew I liked it.  I was more or less positive about what I'd seen, and yet part of me was also suspicious about my own liking for this movie.  All these years later, it seems as if that initial moment of suspicion has prove correct.  I started out this review by giving a list of films that started out as critical darlings, and have since fallen into various forms of obscurity and disfavor.  I wondered whether or not this film deserved a spot on the list.  After a re-watch, and as careful a consideration as I can muster about these things, I'm afraid I'll have to say that the answer is an unqualified yes.  Christopher Nolan tried to aim for the stars with a film like Dunkirk.  The sad truth, however, is that this is a film whose ambition remains unable to match up to its ultimate execution.

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