Tuesday, July 25, 2017

NOLAN'S GREAT WAR: a review of "Dunkirk"

Written, Produced and Directed by Christopher Nolan
**** (four stars)

What a month it has been for going to the movies everyone!!!

Yes, I do lament quite often about the status of the movies in the 21st century with their over reliance upon all things overly familiar and ready made, from sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes, re-imaginings and so on and all at the expense of seemingly all other films that could be made, especially from filmmakers who really wish to utilize the language of cinema to express themselves artistically.

One such filmmaker that has valiantly escaped the clutches of being creatively marginalized is none other than Writer/Director Christopher Nolan, who has spent the entirety of his career masterfully blending the esoteric and the popcorn into powerfully artistic and enormously entertaining statements that has firmly established him as one of the finest, most visionary Directors working today, ensuring that the arrival of each new film from him is indeed a cinematic event. And now, Nolan has returned with an experience so riveting and ravishing that it is quite possible that he just may have even topped himself.

"Dunkirk," Christopher Nolan's World War II set epic, is not only one of the very best films of 2017, and re-established Nolan as a cinematic force to be reckoned with and then some, I think that this may be his tightest, tautest yet most experimental film to date and that includes his breakthrough feature "Momento" (2000), the brilliant psychological thriller of a man suffering short term memory loss in a narrative told backwards.

In many ways, with "Dunkirk," Nolan has devised of a war film told in a fashion that I know that I have never seen before and which made for a furiously paced dramatic intensity pitched so highly that it was nearly anxiety inducing. Yet, this is a profoundly excellent quality as well as yet another perfect example of why we still need visionary filmmakers like Christopher Nolan. In a genre that seems to feel as if everything that could have been said about war has been made, here comes an artist that boldly re-invents the genre itself.

"Dunkirk" examines the events of the Dunkirk evacuation during the Second World War when the Germans had 400,000 British and French troops trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, France from three specific vantage points: the land, the sea and the air.

In the film's first section, entitled "1. The Mole," we follow the path of Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), young British Army Private who emerges as the sole survivor of an ambush on the streets of Dunkirk onto the beaches where he befriends the silent young solider Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and the hotheaded Alex (Harry Styles) as they attempt to evacuate the beach via boats under the leadership of pier master Commander Boulton (a steadfast Kenneth Branagh).

The film's second section, entitled, "2. The Sea," focuses upon the rescue effort made by the Royal Navy and some civilian merchant ships, one of which operated by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), and his sons Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and 17-year-old George (Barry Keoghan). With German fighter planes sailing overhead ad British destroyers finding themselves bombed, Mr. Dawson remains sternly committed to the task of rescuing the soldiers, even when one shell-shocked sole survivor from a U-Boat attack (Cillian Murphy) wants nothing more than to return to England rather than set sights on Dunkirk again.

The film's third and final section, entitled "3. The Air," focuses on the aerial dogfights between the German and a trio of Royal Air Force Spitfire pilots including Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden).

Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk" is exemplary, brilliant, exceedingly well conceived and executed cinema. It is a visually resplendent experience and believe me, if you are fortunate enough to live in a city where the 70MM format remains available to you (unlike myself), then it would be imperative to see the film within this format as the panoramic vistas of the land, sea, and sky are awesome to behold in their simultaneous poetry and fury. At this time, talk of awards season coronations have been bandied about and deservedly so, for Nolan himself and tremendous credit must be bestowed upon Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and Editor Lee Smith have risen to the mountainously high challenges of this film with superb aplomb!

Yet for me, Christopher Nolan's extraordinary right hand man is none other than Composer Hans Zimmer, another cinematic legend who seems to relish in the opportunities presented within a new Nolan film as he has unearthed some of the most innovative scores of his career, from the knife's edge intensity contained within "The Dark Knight" (2008) and the swirling pipe organ dynamics of "Interstellar" (2014). For "Dunkirk," like Nolan himself, Zimmer has raised his own bar powerfully with his ferocious, white knuckle score full of (again) anxiety inducing crescendos set to the heart racing, palm sweat raising tempo of a ticking watch. Among the film's many gifts, "Dunkirk" is an exhilarating marriage of sound and vision and Hans Zimmer  more than deserves whatever acclaim that may flow in his direction as his work is exhilarating and exhausting.

Oddly enough, "Dunkirk" reminded me a bit of Edgar Wright's "Baby Driver" as the music and the images congealed so brilliantly to the degree it sometimes felt as if I was watching a musical. The choreography, from the planes in the sky to the masses of soldiers all falling down to the grounds of the Dunkirk beaches in unison as the German fighter planes drop bombs all around them, are stunning to regard an din some respects, Nolan takes the music to image aesthetic, if not further than Wright, into an equally innovative direction.

For despite the film's immense volume (this being a Nolan film, it is indeed especially loud), "Dunkirk" almost functions as a silent movie, as it is a film with scant dialogue and characterizations that are more purposefully archetypal than three dimensional, all elements which make for a shatteringly visceral, and therefore, visual experience unlike much of what you will see this year and definitely not a familiar one to the war film genre.

So far, all of my praise has remarked upon the more technical side of "Dunkirk," yet what makes the film absolutely soar is what Christopher Nolan has done with the war film genre. War films have always fascinated and intrigued me and I am not terribly sure why as I do consider myself a pacifist and with that, the thought of being caught within a battlefield situation terrifies me. But still, I think of all of the war films--or are they all really anti-war films--that are indeed some of the great films that I have been exposed to throughout my life.

From the clinically surreal and satirical eye of Stanley Kubrick with "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb" (1964) and "Full Metal Jacket" (1987), to Oliver Stone's more intensely personalized portrayals within "Platoon" (1986) and "Born On The Fourth Of July" (1989) to Clint Eastwood two-sided "Flags Of Our Fathers" (2006) and "Letters From Iwo Jima" (2006), Michael Cimino's working class Vietnam opera "The Deer Hunter" (1978) to most certainly, Steven Spielberg's titanic "Saving Private Ryan" (1998), I have been exposed to one triumphant vision of humanity at its most perilous through one set of incredibly detailed and idiosyncratic eyes to another. What Christopher Nolan has done within the genre with "Dunkirk" felt to be altogether different.

In short, Nolan has utilized the film's triptych structure and the various storylines contained therein to not have the film run as three specific sections but as one, complete, non-linear narrative that plays with the structures of time, as the events of "The Mole" play out for the course of one week while "The Sea" and "The Air" play out over the course of one day and one hour respectively.

Certainly, this approach serves the Nolan aesthetic just as it did with his past cinematic jigsaw puzzles, like the dream world logic of "Inception" (2010), the quantum physics time travel of the aforementioned "Interstellar" as well as the backwards thrills of "Momento." Yet, Nolan has not utilized this technique solely for mere cinematic effect, as brilliant as it is. What Nolan has achieved is to miraculously merge the primal with the existential regarding the fight for survival and the randomness of death, where the anguish, violence, chaos and terror are all amplified into something that resembles the overall timelessness of war.

By juxtaposing all three story and timelines, Nolan depicts the primal nature with simultaneous elegance and rapaciousness, for one character who is alive in one scene set earlier or later, may be seen nearly drowning in another scene set earlier or later thus blurring the nature and concept of time completely. For within the urgency and horror of the battlefield, I can only imagine that regardless of the actual span of time being one hour, a day or a week, all of it feels interminable in its punishment and death is indeed instantaneous, occurring in less than a blink of an eye.

On a more existential level, the sheer randomness of violence and death is extremely palpable. The first scene of the film shows how young Tommy is the sole survivor of a small group of young men by either fate or dumb luck. Another who greets the day with eagerness might not survive until the next. A soldier may be a hero one moment and then a captive in the very next. I think that Nolan's technique in this regard brutally illustrates the nature of war itself, regardless of the actual time period the war is set, making "Dunkirk" not only representative of its specific subject matter but representative of every war that has ever been fought.

To that end, this is why I feel that "Dunkirk" succeeds so immensely despite its lack of significant dialogue and fully developed characterizations (in fact, Cillian Murphy's character is only known as "Shivering Soldier") and for that matter, I also think that this is why the film happens to be Nolan's shortest film in quite some time as it runs under two hours. Nolan understands that "Dunkirk" is a film that needs to be furiously paced, filled with awe, power, reverence and a stunning, terrifying velocity that cuts down to the bone and he succeeded on every count artfully, skillfully and triumphantly.

Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk" is one of 2017's highest achievements.

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