Monday, August 7, 2017

Dunkirk (2017): A Review

Yesterday, Katie-Bar-The-Door and I finally got around to seeing writer-director Christopher Nolan's latest blockbuster, Dunkirk, in 70mm down at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland.

If you know your history, Dunkirk is a place name that conjures up one of the most pivotal moments of World War II, the evacuation of the British army during the fall of France in June 1940.

Surrounded on three sides by the advancing Nazi armies and on the fourth side by the sea, the British found themselves on the verge of annihilation. Rather than negotiating terms, however, thousands of civilians took to fishing trawlers, tugboats, and pleasure craft, crossed the Channel, and pulled 300,000 men off the beach to safety.

This "heroic defeat" rallied the British people to stand alone against Hitler's armies, a stand now rightly regarded as "their finest hour."

Dunkirk is not a typical history lesson, however, with Churchill and Hitler barking orders at the strategic level.

Instead, the tale is told from three very intimate points of view — a week in the life of a British soldier (Fionn Whitehead) stranded on the beach; a day in the life of a weekend boater (Mark Rylance) and his son sailing from England across the Channel to rescue said soldiers; and an hour in the life of a British fighter pilot (Tom Hardy) tasked with protecting sea and sand alike from marauding German bombers.

Each moment is observed in extreme close-up — that is to say, limited strictly to details within the character's immediate line-of-sight or concern — without any backstory, exposition, humor or any other traditional storytelling device to provide context or lighten the load. In that sense Dunkirk reminded me of the interstitial chapters in Hemingway's first short story collection In Our Time where a single paragraph served as a drop of water from which to extrapolate the existence of an ocean.

The movie crosscuts continuously between stories, but not on simultaneous action as you've been taught to expect since the days of Griffith, instead on simultaneous emotions running along converging narrative arcs.

It's an audacious storytelling device, but then Nolan has spent his entire career — from Following to Memento to Inception to Interstellar — playing with chronology and narrative.

The action is intense, the mood desperate. There is no respite, no breather. If you have a fear of drowning in a tightly enclosed space, either alone or with a hundred men screaming out their last around you, this movie may not be for you. If you have claustrophobia or abandonment issues, if you're afraid of heights or fire or the dark, stay home. If you don't like the idea of getting blown up or shot at, rent a nice rom-com instead.

Katie-Bar-The-Door found the experience relentless and a bit exhausting. On the other hand, my fourteen year old niece has seen it three times.

One question that kept buzzing around in my head before the movie, was why Dunkirk? Why now? It's not an anniversary, it hasn't been in the news. Afterwards, I added to that, why such a tight focus on a handful of nearly anonymous characters? Not that it doesn't work, but stripped almost entirely of its historical context, the story becomes an abstract outline — a compelling outline, but an outline nevertheless.

And then it hit me. An outline of huddled masses yearning to breath free, fleeing the horrors of war, hoping against hope for a rescue from across the sea. Stripped of the filigree, Dunkirk is at its heart not a war story but a refugee story. And what are there millions and millions of right now?


It's the great moral and humanitarian crisis of our generation, and our failure to act, our indifference, our outright hostility in the face of a tidal wave of desperation and human misery flowing out of the Muslim world threatens to crack the very foundation of the West as we know it.

Suddenly Dunkirk seemed to me very timely. Timeless, too. If you pull back even farther, you see not just the historical battle of Dunkirk, and not just a parallel to today's world, but the story of mankind writ large — the never-ending battle between chaos and culture, cynicism and compassion, cowardice and courage.

That Nolan can take such a grim story, tell it in such a radically experimental style, and still sell hundreds of millions of dollars worth of tickets, well, that's not just genius, that's art.

Dunkirk isn't a perfect movie, only, I suspect, a great one. Stay tuned, it just might be the best picture of the year.

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