“Dunkirk” is One of the Year’s Best
Aug 3, 2017   •   Mikhail Lecaros
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Aug 3, 2017   •   Mikhail Lecaros
Christopher Nolan’s (Memento) Dunkirk surprised the moviegoing world last week by taking the top spot at the US box office. As the first legitimate contender for next year’s awards season, Dunkirk is light years away in story and presentation from its would-be competitors (The Emoji Movie, anyone?).
Buzz has been largely positive, with many saying that Dunkirk is the best film Nolan has ever done.
Here’s our take:
Given his success helming the Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception, and Interstellar, director Christopher Nolan is no stranger to balancing blockbuster budgets with non-traditional narrative structures. With Dunkirk, he breaks it down into three timelines that encompass a week, a few days, and a couple of hours, respectively. The three narratives converge for the final act in a manner that rewards the viewer’s attention without becoming confusing or pandering.
Depending on which side you’re on, the 1940 British pull out from France is rarely considered a high point of the Second World War. Forced to retreat from the Nazi invasion of France, 400,000 British troops were left stranded with no way to get back to England. With German planes in the air, mines in the sea, and submarines beneath it, the British government was unwilling to risk losing the royal Navy to extract the men.
Left with no recourse, the Royal Navy called on anyone with a seaworthy vessel to join what would become largest rescue mission in military history.
Where Saving Private Ryan (1998) opened by placing viewers squarely in the thick of things (during the Allied Invasion of Normandy) before shifting gears to depict a traditional narrative, Dunkirk never makes the change; all throughout, Nolan sustains the tension, uncertainty, and outright fear of being in the middle of a warzone.
Take, for instance, a sequence set below decks on a fully-loaded ship on the open sea that takes a torpedo in the middle of the night. For the viewer, the knowledge that all of this really happened (for the most part) only makes the experience all the more terrifying.
Sir Kenneth Branagh plays Commander Bolton, the pier officer in charge of getting the troops safely aboard whatever ships are coming to rescue them. In addition to being a composite of real-life officers, Bolton’s decisiveness and dignity in the face of adversity make him the film’s physical representation of idealized English military tradition. Despite the fact that he only seems to have been included for gravitas and staring off into the distance in concern, believe us when we say that Branagh delivers a master thespian’s showcase of concerned horizon staring.
Branagh is arguably the biggest name in a stellar cast of acting heavyweights that includes Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies), Tom Hardy (Bronson), Cilllian Murphy (28 Days Later), and Nolan mainstay Michael Caine (The Prestige) in a voice cameo. The point of view character here is a young soldier, Tommy, played by newcomer Fionn Whitehead, in his feature film debut.
But there’s one actor that has surprised pretty much everyone who’s seen the film…
In a nutshell? YES. We were surprised as well. Best known as a member of boy band One Direction, Styles’ only notable onscreen work (aside from a couple of concert films) prior to Dunkirk was a cringe-worthy appearance on sitcom iCarly.
Depending on who you believe, Nolan either thought he was auditioning another Harry Styles or was just plain blown away by the young man’s talent right off the bat. Styles plays Alex, a young soldier who teams up with Tommy to get home at any cost. The role forces the rookie actor to display varying levels of fear, paranoia, shock, and everything in-between, which Styles manages with surprising aplomb.
If he ever decides to give up singing altogether, he could very well have a future in the movies.
Who would have thought?
For all its technical whiz-bang, Dunkirk is decidedly traditional in its depiction of a world at war. Indeed, Nolan never once shows the advancing German forces as anything but faceless nemeses to be overcome, eluded, or eliminated. Whether this was an attempt at keeping the focus solely on the ostensible heroes of the piece or a conscious decision to demonize the so-called enemy is up for debate. Make no mistake, this doesn’t take away from the film’s impact or the significance of the story it’s trying to tell. But after years of politically correct war films that take pains to present both sides equally, Dunkirk’s presentation is somewhat curious.
Hands down, Dunkirk makes everything Nolan has done before look like a warm-up. The IMAX-powered mid-air hijack/kidnap from The Dark Knight Rises? Try dogfights with actual restored World War II-era Spitfires. The tumbling fistfight in that spinning corridor from Inception? Try thousands of actors in period-accurate uniforms acting on a wind-swept beach, reacting to on-site explosions.
Well known for his aversion to CGI and insistence on shooting things for real and on film, Nolan’s is the antithesis of the Michael Bay approach, where explosions take precedence over character, and overly elaborate CGI is applied to the point of visual gibberish.
In addition to shooting on IMAX and wide-format film (65mm), the effect is nothing less than awe-inspiring when you realize that Nolan and cinematographer (Hoyte van Hoytema, who also lensed Spectre) used every technique in their arsenal to make a film that is as beautiful to behold as it is harrowing to experience.
Where the aforementioned Bay revels in his so-called “Bayhem”, wherein thousands of moving parts appear onscreen like so much combustible confetti, Dunkirk represents a filmmaker at the height of his powers. Where Nolan succeeds is his ability to never have his narrative feel overstuffed or confusing; no matter which of the three timelines we’re following, the story always manages to come through without losing the audience. Combine that storytelling sense with a director who knows how to stage, shoot, and edit his action in a way that’s narratively and geographically logical, and you have a film that is nothing less than a masterwork.
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