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Friday, July 21, 2017

Dunkirk

If you look at Dunkirk solely as an experience, rather than a character or narrative-driven piece, you will find a lot to like.  Writer-director Christopher Nolan has stripped the war epic down to its most basic essential - survival.  This is not about soldiers banding together and forming friendships on the battlefield.  This is simply about men trying to stay alive, and as a summer spectacle, it can be a nerve-jarring experience at times.

Telling the story of Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk in northern France beginning in May of 1940 after they were hemmed in by German enemy fire, Nolan uses a very episodic and at times sporadic story telling style, jumping from one group of people to the next, each with their own individual plotline.  The dialogue is largely minimal.  We don't learn much about these people.  Instead, the movie is trying to put us in their shoes, and allow us to experience what they are going through.  In a way, I admire this approach, but at the same time, it does make certain moments feel a little emotionally empty.  I was never disappointed, I just was kind of left wanting to know a bit more about these people up on the screen at times.  Regardless, Nolan tells his story with few unnecessary elements.  Everything moves by at a very brisk 106 minutes, nothing distracts, and most of what's up on the screen engages.

We witness the battle through the eyes of multiple people.  First, there is Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young recruit who teams up with two other soldiers (Aneurin Barnard and pop star Harry Styles) to flee the beach.  We also get the story of a civilian sailor (Mark Rylance) and his teenage son (Tom Glynn-Carney), who are heading toward Dunkirk in order to help the trapped soldiers.  There is also a Royal Air Force pilot (Tom Hardy) who is engaged in air battles throughout the film.  The whole point behind the film is to create an immersive experience.  If the characters are a bit thinly drawn, it is intentional in this case, as the filmmakers are largely giving us the experience and telling a simple, paired down story.  The people within do not have backstories, romantic subplots, or families back home wringing their hands as they wait for news about their safety.  They simply are engaged in battle for the entirety of the film's running time, and trying to get to safety.

Does this approach make Dunkirk suffer dramatically at times?  Honestly, just a little.  But again, this is not the kind of movie that Nolan was trying to make.  He is making a technical movie, not an emotional one.  And at what he was trying to make, he has succeeded.  The movie was filmed in IMAX and 65mm film, and it's obviously the format you should try to watch it in if you have that option.  But even on a regular screen, there is such a sense of immersive scope right from the opening scene, when some soldiers are waking down a seemingly abandoned street.  The fact that the action never really leaves the field of battle helps with the immersion.  There are no scenes of the soldiers planning strategies, or inspiring speeches.  Heck, the total amount of lines of dialogue in the entire film probably equals less than your average 90 minute movie.  So, it is up to the scope and the spectacle of the film to draw us in, which it does.

If I did walk out of the theater just a tiny bit disappointed in some regard, it is that this is not a very human or emotional film.  In a way, I appreciate that Nolan has trimmed away so many of the basic cliches we've seen many times in World War II docudramas, but at the same time, it is these kind of cliches that help us identify with the people on the battlefield.  With everything stripped off except for the thrill of battle, it can come off a bit inert on an emotional level.  This is definitely a movie where we are moved more by the images, rather than the story that is being told.  And when Nolan does try to get a little emotional, such as the scenes concerning Kenneth Branagh as a Naval Commander talking about home and keeping hope alive, it does come across as a bit mechanical.  It's like he knew he had to throw in some tiny hopeful cliche, but his heart was not fully in it.

Dunkirk is an experience while you are watching it, but it did not leave much of a lasting impression on me when it was over.  If you're someone who is a stickler for details and likes a lot of information instead of a heartfelt story, you'll likely love this.  Me, I admired the movie greatly and found it a success at what it was trying to accomplish.  I just can't say with any certainty if it struck any sort of emotional chord.

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