Monday, July 24, 2017

Review: Dunkirk

by Patrick Bromley
Christopher Nolan goes to war.

Reviewing new Christopher Nolan movies gets increasingly difficult with every new film he directs because they aren't so much movies as they are cultural events. This is a good thing, of course, because he primarily makes huge blockbuster studio movies that are original ideas, not based on existing properties (unless you count those three Batman movies with which he made his name among the fanboy community), with great care put into how said films are both constructed and exhibited. There is suddenly a lot of talk about film versus digital and sizes of both screens and film because everyone wants to see his movies in the best way possible, maybe because all of the press surrounding the release of his movies insist upon it. These are all good things for the health the thing we all love.
But Nolan films are also becoming the new Malick films, which is to say that if you're "serious" about movies you had better love them -- unless, of course, you're even more serious than the average serious cinephile, in which case you see "past" what Nolan is about and tear them apart as empty exercises in pretentiousness. You just can't fucking with with this guy. I don't subscribe to either camp, which is to say I see each new movie he makes -- and I will see every new movie he makes and look forward to them -- and then I decide how I feel about them. I have liked the majority of his movies and still maintain that he made one of my very favorite movies of the last decade. At the same time, Dunkirk is now Nolan's third consecutive film that has left me with very mixed feelings, so maybe he and I are growing apart.

Dunkirk is a strange movie. Nolan really wants to be Stanley Kubrick, which is a fair comparison in the way that his films are exacting in their construction and often accused of being cold or clinical. But Nolan lacks Kubrick's point of view -- not his cynicism, when I don't expect to carry over (Nolan is not a cynical director), but almost any point of view. Dunkirk is Big and Important because it is about War and Heroism, and all of these qualities coupled with the fact that it's directed by Christopher Nolan make me feel bad for not liking it more. It's incredibly well put-together, telling three stories that eventually converge into the same moment. On the ground are the hundreds of thousands of English and French soldiers, stranded at Dunkirk, sitting ducks against the (completely unseen) enemy, trying to survive the week until they are hopefully rescued. One soldier, played by Fionn Whitehead, keeps trying to get on a boat back to home only to have his every attempt thwarted. He makes some friends along the way, including one played the much-publicized Harry Styles, who is totally fine playing a part that more or less doesn't exist. On the sea, a private citizen father (Mark Rylance) and his son take out their boat as part of the massive organized rescue effort. In the air, a pilot (Tom Hardy) attempts to shoot down enemy planes and provide the boats enough time to evacuate Churchill's desired 30,000 men needed to return to England and continue the fight. I won't spoil actual history for you in case you don't already know how this turns out.
I'm not sure how well Nolan's decision to cut back and forth between three different timelines (they're all on the same line, actually, but at different points) actually serves the story beyond his penchant for putting together movies like they're puzzles. What I do love, though, is his willingness to let his images speak for themselves much of the time. Nolan is credited as the sole screenwriter, but the dialogue in the movie is quite spare as long stretches play out wordlessly. His imagery has the capacity to be both poetic and beautiful, and Dunkirk is full of striking moments that tell their own entire story. Just the opening scene is full of them: soldiers walking through an abandoned city, pamphlets raining down from the sky, one stopping to get what little water he can from a garden hose. There are shots of hundreds of soldiers all looking up to the sky in unison when they hear a plane, certain that this could be the thing to wipe them out. What is most affecting in the movie are the many small acts of heroism, which is very much what Dunkirk is about: small acts of heroism that allowed hundreds of thousands of men to survive, and surviving is the best any of the soldiers trapped on that beach could have hoped for.

As much as I appreciate Nolan's willingness to tackle big, important ideas in his more recent films, I'm not sure how well-suited he is to do so from a writing standpoint. Yes, his movies have size and spectacle and epic sweep, and there are gorgeous moments in Dunkirk and a lot of tension, assisted in large measure by Hans Zimmer's unnerving score. But this is now Nolan's second consecutive movie to fumble the softer, more heartfelt content, once again suggesting that he's at his best when he's cerebral, not emotional. Dunkirk wants to go out of its way to avoid war movie cliches until it doesn't, at which point it embraces nearly all of them: survival, previously left to chance, is no longer random; good characters are rewarded (or given hero's deaths) while those who behaved selfishly or cruelly are punished. Dialogue becomes thudding and obvious. All of Nolan's attempts to tell the story of Dunkirk in ways that don't feel like a movie suddenly feel only like a movie, and it's strange to feel a movie resist convention only to fully embrace convention moments later.
I'm thrilled that Dunkirk exists even if it's a movie that, for me, works better in individual moments than it does as any kind of whole. It's the kind of film I want to see more of from the kind of filmmaker who has earned the right to make this kind of film. For all the impressive technique on display, I couldn't shake the feeling that very little of it was connecting with me, and that's what I have to report even when I know that many others do not feel the same way. I have no interest in ranking where Dunkirk places within other recent war movies or within Christopher Nolan's body of work, but if I'm being honest with myself I know that I would probably rather rewatch Insomnia than Dunkirk, which I don't say to be provocative or to take shots at his latest effort, but rather to let you, reader, know where I'm coming from when it comes to Christopher Nolan. I continue to admire his movies. I just want to get back to the place where I love them.

17 comments:

  1. Outstanding review! This reflects exactly how I reacted to the movie as well. I'm definitely one of those "even more serious" asshole Yogi Bear movie fans, but Nolan invites that backlash onto himself; his movies scream out "look how deeply I'm making you think and feel!", but rarely ever earn that right. I think only The Prestige and Inception have any sort of substance, and I'd personally say that between those two only one is watchable. (Guess which one? :) The point you made that the movie goes out of its way to avoid cliches, except for when it doubles down on them enthusiastically, is spot on. Again, great review!

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    1. Trick question! It's The Illusionist. Haha, nope, you nailed it, Paul. :)

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  2. Great review mate. Definitely felt that is was a just collection of war scenes for about 30-35 minutes of the movie. Agreed heavily that it works in individual moments better than a whole.

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  3. The Imax experience was something that I really enjoyed, along with the three alternating time lines. I thought that was something that really distinguished it from other war movies. I also respected the nod to Paths of Glory with never showing us the enemy. With that said, I still don't agree with those who are comparing Nolan to Kubrick. Great review as always, Patrick.

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    1. I don't see Kubrick either. Nolan is safe and normal and I don't mean that as a slight. Kubrick felt way darker and unpredictable imho. Like unhinged.

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  4. Count me in on the "better in individual moments than as a whole" camp. I don't think the way the timeline was presented helped me in that regard. I was often confused and not connecting to the story. I was also busy having mini heart attacks every five minutes over how harrowing everything was. As an illustration of how horrible war is, I think it succeeds in spades, but I think that also may be a reason that I don't really want to rewatch it anytime soon. I don't want to put myself through that again.

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  5. When I first saw Dunkirk, I couldn't believe that anyone could possibly like it. Now I've just come to the realization that Nolan is no longer making movies for me. But he's clearly making movies for other people, and that's fine.

    Despite a lot of people praising this, I don't like that the movies has no characters. I don't like that there's hardly a conversation in the film. And I don't like all the dialogue being painfully obvious. Yeah, it looks good, but that's not enough in this case. The looks don't even have an interesting style. I can't say I was interested in anything here.

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  6. Dunkirk is the second half of a big epic movie. The final battle when men become men. And i liked it. But i understand that people might want more that just tense action

    That ticking sound was unnerving in a sense that it added to the tension of the movie

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    1. Agreed on the ticking. It's a great touch that enhanced the sense of the clock running against the soldiers.

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  7. Really great review Patrick. Although I think I liked it a little more, I agree with all your points. The heroes death moments seemed a bit out of place. And it did have a bit of Alien 3 syndrome: I couldn't tell any of those pasty British men apart once they started getting dirty. But I did really like the minimalism of the script, almost as if Nolan saw Fury Road and thought "Oy, I can do that" (that's how he talks right?). And I really liked the lack of Nazis on screen, they felt like an incoming and unstoppable force without ever feeling like some goofy enemy. There wasn't any evil enemy sniper following our heroes around at every turn. The most tense moments came from the sound of an approaching enemy plane. I thought that was terrific and refreshing.

    Maybe I'm just a bit high on it because I really disliked Interstellar, but I think it's going to be a major contender for my top 10 this year.

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  8. You summed up my feelings almost exactly, save for the bit about Nolan pining to be Kubrick which doesn't quite add up. Do Valerian next please. I want to officially put the epitaph on Luc's grave and be done with him.

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  9. Great review. It is odd that Nolan is thought of in a different light than any other director working today. You like him? Then you are a fanboy. You don't like him? Then you are just trying to be different. It is beyond silly. I thought Dunkirk was one of the most visceral films I've ever experienced in a theater. It is missing some key aspects of what I would generally consider a requirement for me to thoroughly enjoy a film, yet I was still entranced. Go figure.

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    1. Well said. I feel like Tarantino and Edgar Wright fall into that same category, even though I think their fanbase and Nolan's fanbase don't always intersect.

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  10. If I'm not mistaken, this is Nolan's first movie since Following where he is the only credited writer and one of the few movies he's done where his brother was not involved in some capacity (Following, Batman Begins, and Insomnia I think are the ones Jonathan didn't work on at all).

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  11. Saw Dunkirk yesterday, some character thoughts...

    The soldier at The Mole, whom we follow through his trials and for whom we are meant to root for, is difficult to root for because A) he's a little too "every man for himself", and B) we know nothing about him. Maybe that's the point, maybe as an everyman soldier trying to survive he is simply an amalgamous representation. Which works on paper, but doesn't help me connect to the character. When I watch him, I don't find myself thinking "yeah, I'd do the same thing", yet I believe we are intended to relate to him.

    The dad who captains the boat is the heart of the movie. He best represents why people become heroes. Not because they are naturally heroic, but because they want to help, because they are presented with an opportunity to help, because they believe in a cause, because if they don't do it, who will? And in this case, because he's setting an example for his son.

    George. I don't get this character, he has no role to play in the proceedings. I felt no emotion regarding his story arc.

    The fighter pilot is like a stand-in for Nolan. Very clinical, very cold, very good at his job.

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  12. Brilliant review Patrick. I have yet tobsee this but the way you really weigh the movies strengths and weakness is high class criticsn and one of the reasons I love reading your reviews.

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