Friday, July 28, 2017

On the beach


I waver between "this is a strikingly ambiguous take on the heroism of a nation" and "look at the awesome airplanes!", but, luckily, Dunkirk is a marvel no matter how you slice it.

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan
With Fionne Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Harry Styles, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Karney, Barry Keoghan, Cillian Murphy, Jack Lowden, and Tom Hardy

Spoiler alert: mild

Dunkirk is amazing in a lot of little ways.  For a start, it's a war movie (specifically, a combat movie) that manages to be frightfully, exhaustingly intense, without resorting to the obvious post-Saving Private Ryan trick of simply making itself so frightfully, exhaustingly unpleasant that you start to taste copper if you keep your eyes open while you're watching it.  In something of the same vein, it's a combat movie where a PG-13 rating doesn't serve as an insulting handicap.  While it's easy to imagine a somewhat better Dunkirk that went for the hard-R and its attendant bloodletting, it's surprisingly hard to imagine a significantly better one—that is, one that better relates the nightmares and miracles it depicts.

The result is a war movie that is agnostic in the extreme regarding what it thinks about war.  Surely, no anti-war movie would be this thrilling, however fatiguing; and no anti-war movie would be this chock full of gorgeous military history tableaux.  But Dunkirk's only patriotic by default, too; and so we're starting to get to the big amazing thing about Dunkirk, which is how it decides to tell what seems like it ought to be a straightforward adventure/hagiography set during the desperate evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from fallen France.  It tells it brilliantly enough that I'd like to call it the best war movie of the 21st century, though I probably ought to have actually seen more 21st century war movies, were I going to commit to that statement on the record.  Well, either way, it's easily the best Christopher Nolan movie in some little while.

It is even, perhaps, the most Christopher Nolan movie of them all—especially in every way that doesn't involve runtime.  (For his tenth feature film, the famously dithering auteur has somehow managed to make a war epic shorter than its genre's average.  It is, notably enough, his slimmest film since his very first, which, of course, was barely made at all.)

In every other respect, Nolan has embraced his most prominent idiosyncrasies as a writer and director—the real ones and the ones his critics have tended to perceive.  The most important real one, obviously, is his penchant for pronounced, arguably motiveless, and even outright-confusing structural fuckery.  He made his bones with it 17 years ago, with Memento, and there's not been even one single original Nolan film where his preoccupation hasn't made itself known.  It certainly makes itself known here, complete with handy title cards: Dunkirk is a triptych of war, as fought in the air, on the sea, and on the land (or, as the film describes its terrestrial segment, "The Mole," apparently purely because Nolan wished to teach us a new word).  Each segment occupies radically different amounts of time (an hour, a day, and a week, respectively).  Sometimes they overlap one another.  All three drive inexorably toward the decisive moment where they collide.  And, in one instance, it even loops back altogether—an ironic riposte to a character whose meaning depends entirely upon our director's ability to traverse time.

Artistically, Nolan's impulse to destroy the continuum reached its apex in The Prestige, where he relied upon impressionistic, musical cutting across years and continents, rather than conventional narrative as such.  Dunkirk thereby resembles The Prestige more than anything else in his filmography: there's no diegetic device here, as in Memento, Inception, or Interstellar, that outright demands the Nolan puzzlebox approach.  In fact, there's a host of solid reasons why he ought to have refrained—the consensus is, as yet, hardly settled on whether Nolan's cut-up technique pays out more dividends in terms of theme than it costs in terms of clarity and character.  And it does cost something; let's not pretend otherwise.

This is where we get to the other Nolan peccadillo, and if the man's been indicted for his intellectualizing coldness before, Dunkirk must stand now as the strongest weapon in his detractors' argument.  I've spent a few words railing against this perception: nobody who made The Prestige or Inception could be said to totally lack an emotional intelligence.  Someone who made Interstellar, though, could be; and, perhaps in response to being slapped down for his lunging cosmic melodrama, in Dunkirk Nolan's just doubled-down on every sin he's ever been accused of.  There's a reason why, when I listed the cast above, I didn't bother putting down character names.  Frankly, I don't know their names, except for "Tommy," and I only know that because it appeared in articles about the film, and because it's so terrifically on-the-nose it barely counts as a name, anyway.

But I don't care about their names: if I have any need to refer to them as individuals, and I doubt it'll come up often, then they're "Fionne Whitehead," "Ken Branagh," "Tom Hardy," "Cillian Murphy," "Mark Rylance," and so on.  Very few put on performances that differ significantly from the others.  If they do differ, they differ mostly by function: some men play infantry, an endless legion of almost-completely indistinguishable white guys with brown hair in brown clothes; some men play members of the Royal Navy, and they wear smart black caps; some men play pilots of the Royal Air Force, and they wear masks over their faces for almost the whole film.  (If the movie lacks any one element of the typical Nolan film, it's that it has no character beset by a maddened obsession.  But it lacks characters entirely, so there we are.)

This is not to impugn any man's performance, mind you.  Their embodied mass of beleaguered Britishness standing mostly-firm is, after all, a charismatic one.  (Especially Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden—Lowden gets a line so British that I don't know how he physically managed to say it while keeping his upper lip so stiff.  Yes, I'm eager to admit that this could be my constitutional bias towards the air forces at work; still, one must admit in return that dashing pilots saving thousands of lives at a stroke make for much easier fantasy figures to latch onto than soldiers under siege or seamen burning alive on seas full of ignited gasoline.)

There is a little diversity, I suppose, amongst the British Army; some of them are in the process of devolving toward animals with received pronunciation.  But for the most part, even they patiently wait—whatever inner lives, hopes, and dreams they possess is communicated mostly through their collective forlorn gaze down the beach and across the water.  As for the performances that offer anything at all in sense of actual, normal character, you can only look to "The Sea," which boasts at least two: Mark Rylance's aging civilian boatman, who takes his yacht to Dunkirk along with the rest of the Channel coast seafarers, set against Cillian Murphy's psychologically-shattered soldier, the sole survivor of a warship turned into a temporary metal shoal, who panicks when he's told they're going back to where he came from.  But the point is this: do not come to Dunkirk to see the human face of war.  You won't find it.

Yet it locks into place once you realize the protagonist of the film isn't Hardy, or Branagh, or Whitehead, or even Rylance or Murphy.  It's the nation they represent—Britain itself.  (And not even really "Britain and her allies," despite the non-negligible presence of Frenchmen in the film.  Indeed, Dunkirk's sole nod toward political complexity of any stripe is how it concedes the moral fraughtness of Britain's savagely pragmatic decision to save far more of its own than its ally's.)

So it is Britain we follow throughout the film, on the land, on the sea, and in the air, and Dunkirk, far more than a coherent trilogy of separate stories, seeks to unify them into just one story, whether that story ultimately winds up coherent not.  The movement from timeline to timeline and space to space starts out elegant enough, but there's a seeming deliberation to the way things start to break down: it soon becomes a collection of moments, their causal connections sometimes quite hard to specify, each documenting the trauma of a nation that, as far this film is concerned, has only earned itself a reprieve, rather than a victory.  Nolan keeps his emotional distance; the film is visceral but icy, if that makes any sense.  It can bring tears to your eyes—I can't imagine there's any other way to witness the arrival of our stranded soldiers' saviors aboard their multiplicity of little boats, or the soaring magnificence of a Spitfire when your life depends on it—but you're always watching something far away.

It fits with the source of the trauma, anyway: there are literally only two shots where German figures are actually visible; we see a German face just once, and it's out of focus (and it's also the very end of the film, two shots away from the credits).  The Germans become a kind of nightmarish negative space in the narrative: a looming presence throughout, torpedoes and bullets and bombs, effects without any clear cause.  The film opens with Whitehead trying to take a shit in the ghost town beyond the dunes; within seconds he's being shot at, from God knows where.  He never does get to take that shit.  Maybe that's intentional.  Dunkirk is sustained tension—sustained trauma—and if it alternates its tone at all, it's between apocalyptic shellshock and instantaneous violence.  And even in its most brutal moments, it still seems like it's under glass: I suppose it's as close to a dissociative state as a film could get—at least, as close it could get and still basically work as a summer action movie.

This would all only be interesting, and not the elements of a masterpiece, were it not for the technical craft involved, which is, unlike Dunkirk's narrative experimentalism, beyond any possible reproach.  Besides, the narrative experiment wouldn't work nearly as well as it does without the unifying presence of its score, courtesy Hans Zimmer and the Tin Ear Machine.  It is not exactly nice—hell, it's actively assaultive, and it is constant—and I can't easily imagine listening to it on its own.  But if Zimmer has entered the crazy, too-much-of-a-good-thing-is-wonderful phase—and he's in it deep, if Interstellar, BvS, and Dunkirk are any indication of where his muse is leading him—then I'm nevertheless more impressed with the composer than I've ever been.  For his efforts, I'll give him the highest compliment I could: I honestly cannot imagine Dunkirk with any other music than the ticking-clock and roaring-noise chaos that he devised.  He's matched, of course, by this year's very best sound design—as with its cut-up story, Dunkirk's belligerent soundscape doesn't play around much with individual subjectivity.  It simply is, and lets you draw your own conclusions.

Finally, as I've already mentioned, it is outlandishly pretty—if there is hagiography in here, it's in the melancholic picturebook images of warfare that cinemtaographer Hoyte van Hoytema captures, though his job was certainly made easier thanks to Nolan's quixotic crusade against the digital.  If Dunkirk's a masterpiece on no other level, it is an absolute masterpiece of practical effects: real locations, real ships, above all real planes.  ("The Air," despite being the most conventional by far of the three pieces of Dunkirk's puzzle, is my favorite—and maybe I should remove that "despite," inasmuch as its presentation of untroubled war heroism is clearly meant to be everyone's favorite.  But to my mind, it's still the clear stand-out, representing the most immersive and substantial air combat I've ever personally seen in a film.  The realism is palpable in every scene, honestly, but from the way the vibrations pull the camera out of focus on Hardy and Lowden's faces in their cramped cockpits, to the majesty of the long shots of real Goddamn aircraft—even the fake ones they blow up are still, you know, physically real—there is nothing not to love about "The Air."  That it is "The Air" which happens to close out the film with its most fascinating and enigmatic image—a bluntly, beautifully symbolic moment that raises a lot more questions about Dunkirk's ultimate intentions than it deigns to answer—is, frankly, just a bonus.)

I could see my opinion on Dunkirk varying in the future: the things I find so compelling about it now—its coldly detached exploration of a foundational national myth; its status as a piece of experiential cinema that demands you experience it through an irreparably fragmented point-of-view—might not seem so clever, as the experience itself fades.  But right now, the experience is fresh, and it's a dizzying one.

Score: 10/10


  1. I like your post but think you should ease up on the italics. Thanks!

    1. That's legit, and I probably should.

    2. Fwiw, I blame superhero comics. Thanks, Stan Lee and Grant Morrison.