Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Dunkirk



Dunkirk reminds me of 2001: A Space Odyssey – at least what little I remember of it – but with less classical music. Both are critical favorites but there is just an empty feeling when the characters barely talk. Well, empty is a strong word but more a feeling that something is missing.

Surprisingly – or maybe not – Christopher Nolan manages to inject weirdness into the movie a dose of nonlinear story telling. I didn’t pick it up a first; wondered why some scenes were night and some day when they were all supposed to be in the same time zone. There were parts that repeated but from different camera angles so I couldn’t help but wonder if Nolan made a sci-fi out of a World War II story?

He did not. The nonlinear style was meant to show the rescue of nearly 400,000 British and French troops from three perspectives: a foot soldier waiting for rescue on the beaches, a British fighter pilot providing air coverage, and a civilian pleasure yacht owner speeding towards Dunkirk. Although the three perspectives came in at different times they would all converge into one event that made history.

Little talking relegated the characters are second only to Dunkirk the event. They talked so few times I didn’t learn who they are. There was no back story in England not even details of their unit and its defeat against the German army.


I can barely recall Farrier ever taking his breathing masked off which means Tom Hardy was hidden for most of the movie. Pretty boy Harry Styles had lines only at the latter half. I didn’t even know it was him. Actually I mistook Harry for Fionn Whitehead who plays the young British soldier Tommy whom the camera was chasing all over the beaches of Dunkirk.

Of all the characters Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) was my emotional anchor. He, his son, and a young family friend had plenty of screen time and emotionally compelling dialogue. Also it helped that Rylance had Cillian Murphy to "spar" with, in his scenes. Murphy plays a shell shocked soldier who can only think of going home while Rylance was playing a man who can only think of getting into the war.

The Rylance vs Murphy is the war to watch. Fight or flight, hope vs. despair. British strategy was to hold their warships in reserve and instead use civilian ships to aid in the rescue. Mr. Dawson with his pleasure boat answered that call. I was buying more into everything Mr. Dawson believed in than the emotion of any soldier on the beach desperate to come home.

It is hard to see the desperation on the beaches of Dunkirk seeing the soldiers queued up in the thousands. Were they so in real life? There’s not even a remark on how defenses against the German army are holding hence no suggestion of urgency, no sense that time is running out before the British and French are fully enveloped. It’s not that I want hysterical lack of discipline but the lines were just so neat.

Occasionally those neat lines were harassed by German planes. A German warplane on a strafing/bombing run made the loudest, scariest sound in the entire movie highlighting its significance against the retreating British and French. But for me it’s not the same as actually seeing the walls (German tanks) closing in so to speak.

There was a casual question if the French would evacuate to England as well. Normally a defeated army would just dissolve and get back to their families if not continue into guerrilla mode. I supposed the French cannot just casually disappear when their positions being surrounded by Germans. The question of French evacuation could have made the waiting lines of Dunkirk a little more exciting.

Perhaps the urgency was meant to be seen in Tommy always running around. Tommy was always on the lookout for ways to get off the beach but the lack of dialogue never allowed me to get into his head. There was no mention of a wife, girlfriend, not even a cry out for mommy. For lack of lines, Tommy felt like a plot device silently moving around dragging the camera with him.

As far as good lines of dialogue is concerned, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) was the only character that mentioned the word home but I never felt any gut wrenching desperation to get home. Then again maybe I’m just projecting myself into the situation; pocketed from all sides by enemy soldiers on foreign land I’d be crying for home.

via GIPHY

Nolan, true to his reputation was stingy with the CGI but the scene when the civilian ships were already visible from Dunkirk, the story’s emotional high point could have used a lot of CGI. I don’t know how many civilian ships came to Dunkirk for the rescue but that scene looked like there were only 20 or more; there are 400,000 troops on the beach.

But besides that and the excessively beautiful queues, Dunkirk was excellently shot. Although I cry out for emotionally compelling dialogue the scenes to be fair were not emotionally dead. It just didn't have enough to get over the hump I had in mind. 

As a war movie Dunkirk is visually compelling, great for iMax which the movie was so often marketed for. Is it Nolan's best? Dunkirk is not The Dark Knight.