Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review: "Dunkirk"

There aren’t any characters in Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” at least not really. It’s not a story of individual men so much as a tale of mankind -- his possibilities for mayhem and potential for nobility. This is a war film with very little fighting, an ode to humanity in which no one man stands too far above the rest.

Nolan recreates the mass evacuation of Allied forces at Dunkirk in 1940, the lowest point of World War II when it seemed that the Reich truly was on the verge of toppling the entire world. Hundreds of thousands of troops were trapped on the French coastline, surrounded by Germans, desperately trying to make their way across the Chanel despite too few ships to transport them and not enough planes to protect the ones that did manage to disembark.

The individual story threads are fiction, but together they weave themselves into a thundering representation of the heroism, cowardice and sheer terror of those few days. I have no doubt this film will receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, and many others.

I was surprised when I learned this movie was one hour and 46 minutes long; I thought for certain I had misread it instead of two hours, 46 minutes. But no, “Dunkirk” is the rare war epic that sprawls in scope but not length. There’s an economy to Nolan’s filmmaking here, harkening back to his breakout with “Memento,” like a middleweight fighter who’s all sinew, packing a powerful punch from a modest frame carrying no fat.

The narrative consists of a handful of storylines that intersect when we least expect it, intercutting between them in an order that is not necessarily chronological. At one point we encounter a man, beaten and hollow-eyed, and are surprised to later see him calm and in command. We can guess what happened to him in between, but we don’t know.

This is a true ensemble acting effort, with no lead performers. Fionn Whitehead comes closest to that designation, playing a private who ends up encountering nearly all the other characters in one way or another. He’s a young private who tries to sneak his way to the head of the evacuation line, and keeps finding himself pushed by circumstance further away from salvation. Like many other characters, we never even hear his name.

Kenneth Branagh is the naval officer in charge of the evacuation, standing like a sentinel against the coming apocalypse. Mark Rylance plays Dawson, a Brit civilian who launches his tiny boat, Moonstone, in a seemingly vain effort to help out, his teenage son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and friend (Barry Keoghan) tagging along.

Up in the skies, Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden portray RAF fighter pilots chasing the German planes who are hunting those soldiers who have managed to get off the shore in boats. Their fuel is running lower and lower, but they know that every enemy shot down could mean hundreds of lives saved. So they watch their gauge needles, and stay a little longer.

(Though he’s not credited, I’m fairly certain it’s Michael Caine as the voice of their commander over the radio.)

There are no genuine battles in “Dunkirk,” other than some aerial dogfighting. The Allied soldiers hunker on the beach, hoping for a ship, or if they made it onto one, pray they’re not spotted by German planes or U-boats. There is no illusion of winning here, merely a frantic struggle to survive.

The film is a technical marvel, a seamless combination of live action and CGI effects that convince us we’re right in the thick of it. The metal hulls of the Spitfires pop with the stress of sharp banking; the seas go nearly black with oil spilled from ships stoven in by bombs like playthings.

Hans Zimmer’s musical score is a masterpiece of mood without melody. Reminiscent of the old Vangelis scores from the 1980s, the eclectic combination of tones and rhythm soars or sinks as the prospects for survival wane and wax.

In the middle of a summer of popcorn movies and dimwit comedies, “Dunkirk” rises, grim-faced and commanding, to grab our attention.

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