' ' Cinema Romantico: Dunkirk

Monday, July 31, 2017


“Dunkirk” begins with a moment of silence. A swarm of leaflets waft through the air of the titular coastal French town where British troops have been driven by German forces in the spring of 1940. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a British private, snags one of these leaflets, which warns him and his fellow compatriots that they are surrounded. Indeed, an instant later gunfire erupts as Tommy makes haste, escaping behind a British barricade and continuing to Dunkirk beach where the whole of Britain’s army is waiting for – praying for – escape. And as this unfolds, silence gives way to a prototypical bombastic Hans Zimmer score embedded with a relentless ticking, evoking Nolan’s preference for putting his movies on a clock. Typically, however, whether with “Inception” or “The Dark Knight” trilogy, Nolan has waited until the climax to start the clock; in “Dunkirk” he starts the clock almost immediately.

This is good. Though “Dunkirk” was filmed in a combination of 65mm IMAX and large format film stock, it is notable for its lack of ambition, as Nolan eschews his typical reliance on overheated narrative and ungainly exposition dumps to streamline the sensation. There is no discussion of what led to this or what comes next; there is no mention of Nazi ideology, no mention of Nazis at all; all that matters is what’s happening right now; all that matters is the moment. The stakes are simple: get the hell off this beach. Then again, this is Christopher Nolan, keen to let us know of his Auteurist bonafides, which is why he can’t help but needlessly trick up his otherwise spare narrative, adorning it with three different chapters – The Beach, The Sea, The Air – with each one taking place over a different timeframe – a week, a day, an hour, respectively – and then crisscrossing between them. In the air, Tom Hardy’s RAF pilot gives cover to the retreat by picking off German planes. On the water, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his fishing boat commissioned by the English army, along with a host of others to serve as more nimble escape vessels, steers into harm’s way. And on the beach, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) directs the troubled retreat involving Tommy.

Tommy suggests an interesting character, one who in the early moments is quite consciously played as selfish, where a run with stretcher across the beach to a waiting ship is less about heroism than self-interest. Alas, he quickly recedes into the collective, underscored by the way Whitehead’s face just sort of mixes and matches with all the other actors playing all the other troops he falls in and out with as the evacuation haltingly progresses. He could be anyone; they are all everyone; they are all England; forget yourself for the cause. That’s not necessarily wrong if you’re fighting the Nazis, and Nolan likely assumes we all know they are fighting the Nazis, though there are times when the facelessness of the enemy evokes the sensation of the nameless British officer in “Last of the Mohicans” hollering “For King, For Country!” as a means to imply Go Along or Get Out.

Still, in forgoing the backstory that so often interests him to the detriment of all else, Nolan yields emotion through aesthetic and circumstance. On the beach, he stokes desperation and fear, never more so than repeated shots of German warplanes, initially just ominous specks in the sky and then screaming toward the swath of soldiers as sitting ducks. In the air, on the other hand, Nolan finds a more odd kind of serenity. When Hardy straps that oxygen mask over his face, it becomes a signifier of control, his stoicism a stark contrast not only to the chaos below but to the omnipresent rattle and creak of the cockpit.

Though the dialogue is often muffled, these aerial dogfights are rarely confusing, owed to editing patience that paradoxically renders the disorientation of battle with thrilling clarity. In one breathless moment, a German plane momentarily disappears from view only to glide back in, and the way the shots switch from a composed Hardy to his point-of-view as the enemy re-appears elicits the sensation of cool under fire. It speaks to how linear edits and the power of the image can, in a gargantuan action-laden movies such as this one, capture so much more wonder than words, a lesson Nolan has not always heeded, but which gives so much of “Dunkirk” its kick.

And even if Nolan’s devotion to this timeline trickery eventually causes him to quicken his edits, confusedly running images and characters right into one another, it is still difficult to shake off the verisimilitude in the moment, repeatedly conjuring an in-their-shoes sensation, like a shot of men desperately jumping from a sinking ship seen just over the shoulder of a helplessly frozen Commander Bolton. It’s as primal as it gets. It’s not unlike the opening of Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.” That was an astonishingly visceral sequence, and though it was considerably bloodier than “Dunkirk” it is, on its own, apart from the rest of the film, simply a bravura display of filmmaking. Of course, the rest of the movie was Spielberg trying, successfully or not, to wrestle with it what that scene meant. “Dunkirk”, on the other hand, by deliberately eschewing the event’s complete context and forgoing any philosophical rumination, essentially just is the opening to “Saving Private Ryan.” It is pure spectacle.

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