Friday, July 28, 2017

Zaki's Review: Dunkirk

The evacuation of Dunkirk occurred seventy-seven years ago at the outset of the second World War. After the German push across France and Belgium threatened to wipe out allied forces in one fell swoop and change the direction of human history, the rescue of nearly half a million soldiers across the English Channel from the port of Dunkirk kept victory from Hitler's grasp. Dunkirk fundamentally altered the trajectory of the war, though of course anyone who was in it at the time -- just trying to stay alive long enough to make it home -- couldn't possibly have known that.

While the episode is rightly revered in Europe and England (where the phrase "Dunkirk spirit," for pulling together through adversity, is still a common part of the parlance), it's also a story that's likely unknown to the vast majority of Americans. As such, Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk will likely be the first exposure for many to this fascinating piece of history, one that exposes in equal measure human beings' unerring capacity for inflicting senseless atrocities on one another, and showing selfless compassion even in the face of unspeakable odds.

This is a long-in-coming passion project for the director, who first conceived of the idea more than a quarter-century ago and wrote the script himself. Meanwhile, he bided his time while building a reputation as one of today's most consistently creative big budget filmmakers -- a prowess he's proven across various genres. From superhero spectacle (the Dark Knight series) to inner-space (Inception) to outer space (Interstellar), for most audiences, Nolan's name has come to represent a guarantee for audiences of a very specific synergy of style and content.

Despite the fact that it's Nolan's shortest project since Following, his 1998 breakthrough, Dunkirk is no exception, and it sits very comfortably near the top of a filmography that's an enviable one for the writer/director. This is a war film that eschews excessive gore and indulgent viscera in favor increasing tension and unbearable stress. It's a masterpiece of mood and tone, where individual characters and their respective stories are subordinated to the experience of being trapped in a desperate situation where death is the most likely outcome, and where the fight isn't for glory but for survival.

Featuring Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and Mark Rylance as the most recognizable members of an expansive ensemble (including a surprisingly solid turn by boy band member Harry Styles -- who knew?), Dunkirk cuts between three stories linked emotionally but not chronologically: There's the weeklong land evacuation of troops on "moles" -- concrete structures stretching into the Channel -- waiting for boats, the day-long sea operation as all manner of vessels (including civilian) were enlisted to render aid, and the hour-long aerial mission of three Spitfires trying to stop German planes from picking off targets on the beach.

What makes this such a riveting experience (which really is best consumed in the immersive, 70mm format the director shot in) is how it requires you to stay fully engaged and not merely a passive observer of what you're witnessing on the screen. The nonlinear story is oftentimes quite challenging, and it's something that's sure to confuse unless you're aware of it (it took me a bit to adjust, and I can attest to quite a few of my fellow audience members getting lost early, like they were trying to follow along with someone folding a paper crane and just gave up a third of the way in).

The inherent challenge, of course, is Nolan's preferred hop-skip-jump approach to telling a story (which isn't a particularly new thing for him, by the way, just check out nearly any of his other movies). However, what it requires from the audience is to maintain three separate narrative threads running simultaneously in their heads to keep track of when one strand of a storyline intersects with another. It asks more of you, sure, but it pays off more richly as a result, and allows for some terrific moments that play on our fore-knowledge of certain events and lack of knowledge of others.

This exists as a riposte to what we've come to expect from these types of movies. Plucky heroes. Boo-his villains. The girls waiting patiently at home. Generals making strategy in front of big maps. The soundtrack crescendoing as the good guys charge to victory. Nolan tosses all of those tropes (and big props to Hans Zimmer for his understated score that feels at times like it's part of the ambient sound design). This is warfare at its most elemental. I'd have to go back to 1998 and The Thin Red Line to think of a war picture that affected me as much. Coming at the tail end of a summer season that's been long on bombast and short on substance, Dunkirk is a welcome salve to franchise fatigue, and one of the best movies of the year. A

For even more movie talk, including an in-depth discussion of War For the Planet of the Apes and my interview with director David Lowery about his new film A Ghost Story, check out the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast via this link or the embed below:

No comments: