Sunday, July 30, 2017

"Dunkirk": review

[WARNING: one major spoiler re: artistic approach, but not plot.]

"Dunkirk" is a World War II drama directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D'Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hardy. As you probably know from either seeing the movie yourself or reading other reviews, the film involves Nolan's usual nonlinear narrative and depicts the Dunkirk evacuation of late May to early June 1940. The story focuses on three perspectives: land, sea, and air. The land narrative, titled "The Mole," takes place over the course of a week and puts the spotlight on the British soldiers waiting to be evacuated; the sea narrative covers a single day and concentrates on the civilian ships that have been called by the British military to cross the English Channel and aid in the evacuation; the air narrative covers a single hour and shows us what it was like for a handful of British pilots to chase down German warplanes despite dwindling fuel. The story jumps from one perspective to another, thus playing with the viewer's sense of time and perspective, infusing the plot with a sort of unbalanced confusion. Certain events appear in all three narrative strands and arguably happen slightly differently, depending on perspective, thus also cultivating a "fog of war" sensibility.

The film is ably directed and features both beautiful aerial vistas and some truly masterful acting from the normally over-the-top Shakespearean Kenneth Branagh (there's a moment on the Mole where he stoically accepts the prospect of impending death), but I'm going to go against the tide of critical love for this film and confess that it annoyed the hell out of me when it wasn't outright boring me. To be honest, I'm not sure why this movie is now being lauded as one of the greatest war movies of all time, nor do I understand the critics who rave that this is Nolan's best film ever. The score by Hans Zimmer is a recycled mishmash of the basso throbbing you've already heard in the Batman films (with the addition of a tick-tock-like auditory leitmotif to drive home the point that time is of the essence), and Nolan's use of nonlinear narrative is cannibalized—albeit slightly reconfigured—from his earlier work "Memento," a movie with multiple narrative strands that can be broken apart and reassembled into chronologically coherent wholes.

Nolan's film—and this is a major artistic spoiler—is utterly bloodless, like the gun battles on that old TV show "The A-Team," which to me is unforgivable for a war movie ("Dunkirk" is rated PG-13 in the US, for God's sake). It's not that I lust for exposed guts, blown-off limbs, and leaking brains, but one of my criteria for a good war movie is that it should portray the sheer horror of war—the consequences that ensue when masses of humans are pitted against each other. The first twenty minutes of "Saving Private Ryan" left me almost shell-shocked; that was some of the most intense cinema I've ever experienced, and Spielberg set the bar very high for all war films to come after. Nolan, who apparently isn't even interested in Spielberg's bar, doesn't give us horror: if anything, he makes a half-hearted gesture toward suspense, and that's about it. Despite the movie's short running time (only 106 minutes), much of it is filled with long, expansive shots and eloquent silences. There's very little dialogue, but there's enough to make me wonder whether Nolan had been torn between making a talky movie or a completely talk-free one. What we get is a bad compromise between those extremes.

So I side with the complainers who dislike the fact that Nolan reached into his bag of narrative and cinematic tricks, only to show us the same old tricks. Although the cinematography and the acting were on point, the movie felt like Nolan being Nolan, and it didn't take the concept of war particularly seriously. I suspect this is going to be a forgettable movie for me: ask me about it in a year, and I doubt I'll remember many—or any—details.

But, hey: don't trust my review. Everyone else loves this film, so go see it if you want. For me, this was a mixture of recycled tropes and pulled punches: a real bag of mush. And by the way: I think the French who saw "Dunkirk" and complained that France gets short shrift in Nolan's film have a point.

1 comment:

King Baeksu said...

"Dunkirk" doesn't have enough pansexual, disabled, transracial Muslims in its cast for my tastes.

Think I'll pass.