Monday, July 24, 2017

Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a $150 million experimental film. The film is new, it’s alive, and it is bound for infamy. To discuss art in any sort of measurable way is to relate that art to your own experience. Our tastes are informed, in part, by what we’ve been through and what we’ve seen. I’m noting that because I have seen thousands upon thousands of movies, and I have never seen a film like Dunkirk. And that sort of fresh vibrancy is enough to make me love a film. Of course, more factors are needed to achieve cinematic greatness, but seeing something I’ve never scene before is inspiring in a way that is all too rare. 

It is impossible to talk about Dunkirk without discussing how the film is constructed. The movie is a 106 minute third act film, in which the tension does not let up for a second. Throughout his career, Nolan has popularized the concept of parallel action, especially during the final third of his films. Dunkirk establishes three narratives: soldiers trying to escape on the beach, regular people trying to rescue soldiers on the sea, and soldiers fighting in the air. There are two main factors to Dunkirk’s unconventional narrative. The first is the continual blending of the land, sea and air narratives. We stay with one group for a few minutes, then move onto the next, thereby constantly maintaining a heightened level of anxiety. Nolan edits out all the still moments. Long talks of childhood and lovers left behind are absent. Instead, when an obstacle in one narrative is executed, we immediately cut to another challenge. The second factor is that these three narratives do not run concurrently. The land battle may be taking place at night, but when we cut to the air, it is broad daylight. This method of storytelling is highly irregular in such a large studio film. In fact, I honestly cannot recall a similar story construction in any film, certainly not one lasting 106 minutes.
It’s as if Nolan assembled a three hour movie – including a first act of having breakfast with the characters, watching them receive instructions from superior officers, hearing them talk about where they came from – and cut off the first half of the film in editing. If the intention of this snowballing, parallel action was to maintain a level of impeccable tension, then Nolan surely outdid himself. 

The film tells the story of the evacuation of Dunkirk, in which 400,000 Allied soldiers spent a week attempting to leave France via the beaches in Dunkirk. As these soldiers slowly try to make their way home, they are subjected to German assault from the air, land, and sea. 

The human characters in Dunkirk are secondary. War is the main player. The tension, fear and brutality of war plagues the men of Dunkirk from first frame to last. No where are they safe. Instead, they are left to fend for themselves by any means necessary. There is honor in their survival – men help each other up, devise plans for escape; they open hatch doors and pull each other out of oiled sea. But this is not a typical war film. There are no grand speeches or lengthy war room decrees of strategy. We know nothing of the soldiers’ backstories. Hell, we rarely even know their names. Again, the main character is the war, the boys on the beach are pawns in the conflict. To tell a story without character development is to invest fully in your action, which is precisely what Nolan does here.
And please don’t mistake, there is emotional power to the film. When the men barely outskirt an attack (or, inversely, do not), we feel for them. We celebrate their brief victory and wallow in their sudden defeat. Nolan’s film is anchored in tension, and when that tension breaks, it is far more emotionally resonant than a monologue would be. 

To help maintain the notion of war as character, Nolan has implemented a crew of the highest caliber. Hans Zimmer’s music is a thing onto itself. I’ve never heard anything like it. Typically in movies, score is used for a few minutes at a time to heighten the emotion of a scene. But in Dunkirk, Zimmer’s ceaselessly ticking melodies never let up. The music is as constant as the fear in the eyes of the human characters. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography also helps establish Dunkirk’s world. The movie was shot on 65mm film, much of it in the IMAX format. This provides a gritty, real, and very large insight into the hell of war. When you combine all that with Nolan’s reliance on practical effects (that is, using real WWII ships and real human extras instead of creating them digitally), you get what will be remembered as one cinema’s grandest war films. 

Dunkirk’s dedication to authenticity, coupled with its narrative experimentation, will long be remembered. This is a masterful film; a war picture of the highest order. Many films achieve greatness by giving a fresh spin to familiar themes and concepts. Dunkirk, instead, presents something wholly unique. And even after its hype wears off, Dunkirk will be studied and admired for decades, enjoying its adulation as a film that introduced something new. A


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22 comments:

  1. I do want to see this but I'm low on cash at the moment. I would like to see it in 70mm but that's not likely to happen as it's more likely I'll see it at my local multiplex. It would be cool to go to another 70mm screening but I'm glad I was able to experience that a couple of years ago with The Hateful Eight as part of my cinematic bucket list. Plus, I'm glad Nolan is sticking to the format of film and not giving in to today's film trends.

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    1. Can't wait to hear your take on it. This whole argument of "If you don't see it in IMAX 70mm then don't see it at all!" is just damn silly. See it in a theater, yes, but if you don't have the means to see it in IMAX or 70mm or IMAX 70mm, then so be it. I saw it in 70mm and it looked great. Going to do IMAX next.

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  2. Awesome review! I actually thought that the main character wasnt War but Humanity. Weaker parts of it like with the scene where they are ready to sacrifice one to survive and by showing how fragile mind is with Murphy's character and the remarkable side- the honor, the bravery, the desire to help. War was just circumstance that brought those extremes to light. Other Nolan films had love between lovers, parents and kids etc but I found this one to be the most moving of his films. That moment when the boats came was amazing and this film didnt need much back story to characters- the enormous scale of all those people coming to war zone to rescue strangers and the fact that this really happened was more than enough to give this film heart

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    1. Great insight here. I too think this is up as Nolan's most moving film. (I did cry during the docking scene in Interstellar, but that's because it was just so goddamn big.) I like the notion that Humanity is at the forefront here. I agree. My point with the War as Character bit was more to emphasize that this movie isn't about individual soldiers so much as the institution of war (or the idea of humanity). What a film. Can't wait to see it again.

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  3. Hey man, really enjoyed your review and no disrespect, but i genuinely want to know your opinion on something, since nobody i talked to knew what i was talking about.
    So you're saying that Dunkirk is a one of a kind movie. But to me it was just a bigger, less focused and tensionless version of United 93 (2006). That movie had the event as it's main character. And it executed that concept so much better, because it didn't have celebrities cast as extras, nor did it have some timeline jumping gimmick. That movie also didn't distract your attention on some questionable plot lines (like the fate of that kid on the boat with Mark Rylance, which was so on the nose it kind of made me laugh).
    I don't mind characters with no backstory, non-linear structure and dialogue absence. In fact, i welcome all of that. It's just those things should benefit the dramatic tension of the movie and not hurt it. But Dunkirk just left me with one burning question in my head - what's the point of all of this? The only answer i could find - to show off technical aspect of the movie. Isn't that what people accuse Avatar of? Well good job, then.

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    1. Thanks for this comment. Lot to discuss here. I do think the combination of the ceaseless tension (which other films have done) and the manipulation of time (which other films have done), makes Dunkirk completely unique. And it’s true, one or both of those things will be viewed as gimmicks by some, and that’s fair enough. It’s all a matter of taste, I suppose. United 93 is a masterpiece, one of my favorite films of this century. But in terms of tension, it does let up at times (or, rather, takes a while to get going - i.e., until the plane takes off), but it’s still more tense than 99% of other films I’ve seen.

      “What’s the point of all of this…” is a grand topic that I can’t fully address in a comment thread. That opens the conversation up to massive amounts of discourse. I think you mean what’s the point of the time manipulation coupled with the heightened tension. To me, the point of that was several fold, but in short: to create something singular. Christopher Nolan is such a polarizing filmmaker because he tells stories in such unconventional ways. Some people appreciate the new technique, some people do not. I’m a sucker for new, and new done well. That was Dunkirk for me. I thought every single thing about it benefited its dramatic tension.

      Noting all that, I do appreciate your comment and respect your stance on the film.

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    2. Thank you for your response, i'll explain my "gimmick" remark.
      Christopher Nolan is one of the most influential directors as far as my taste in movies goes. Pretty much 70% of his filmography makes my top 50 of all time. Dunkirk is the first movie he made that i disliked. I was always a Nolan defendant, but this movie felt like culmination of everything the man has been critisized for over his last few movies. When i watch Following, Memento, Batman Begins and Prestige i know why these movies were told that way. Non-linear structure provides more dramatic tension and charcter development. These stories would lose that if told it order. I didn't get that from Dunkirk. The non-linearity was just kind of there. It was the first movie made by Christopher Nolan that felt like someone else was trying to make a Christopher Nolan movie. So it basically was Man of Steel, i guess. And that's why the non-linear aspect of Dunkirk came across as a gimmick to me - it failed to make an otherwise uneventful story interesting.
      I mean why does this movie even have a story? I would be perfectly fine with Dunkirk if it was solely focused on soldiers trying to evacuate from the beach. But then there are those weird little dramas with !!!SPOILERS!!! Cillian Murphy accidently killing a kid a boat and british anti-french xenophobia. Not only did these things distract from the ""event" is the main character" aspect of the movie, but they were also extremely poorly executed from the dramatic stand point. At least for me. And this is why i question the very point of Dunkirk. The way this movie contradicts itself just pissed me off.
      Unlike United 93 that took some huge artistic risks, but ultimately made for a much tighter, scarier and more tense ride. It may start slow, but once it kicks in - it's unstoppable. Dunkirk, on the other hand, started off strong, and i was riveted for the first 25 - 30 minutes, only before getting completely sick of it by the end.
      But you know, i still get the feeling that this is EXACTLY the movie that Nolan wanted to make. And it's kind of great that at lease someone can make arthouse movies with $150 million budget. So yeah, you're right, love it or hate it, this movie is a singular experience.

      Man thank you so much, i had an itch to discuss this movie with someone at your level. I'm really glad you enjoyed Dunkirk and thank you for putting your unique perspective into my thought process. Big fan.

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    3. I fully get what you're saying, and I appreciate your comment. A singular experience but all a matter of taste, for sure. And hey, thank YOU for leaving such great comments. I love discussing movies with anyone; please feel free to stop back anytime!

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  4. Thx. For the great review. I have been thinking that no approach to a war movie could outdo [IMHO] Terence Malick's Thin Red Line.
    Your take on Dunkirk has me thinking this is about to change for me.
    Can't wait to see it.

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    1. The Thin Red Line is still my favorite war film of all time. But Dunkirk's approach is unlike any film ever made, not just any war film ever made. It is wholly singular. Hope you enjoy!

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    2. Well, I just came out of the theater and can report that although the Thin Red Line retains its top spot on my list of great war movies, [my top 5 at the end of this reply] Dunkirk does, as you write, achieve cinematic greatness.

      And while I agree with the reasons you provide to support that declaration, (which I may incorrectly generalize as being about Nolan's artistry, storytelling style, maintenace of tension throughout, etc.) I also would add the film's emotional resonance. In line with the other commenter above opining that the main character was Humanity, I found Dunkirk broadly evocative of very, powerful human emotions in extreme circumstances, most of all, the possibilities of the human spirit in the face of extraordinary fear...that is, FEAR.

      Some may call this courage writ large, but in a strange way that almost diminsh the acts of bravery, and at the same time making them feel distant or inaccessiblde to us in our day to day lives.

      No, Dunkirk's individual feats came across as simple 'decisions to do the right thing,' whatever the personal costs.

      Whether it be a young soldier who speaks out for his silent new friend when the latter was about to be sacrificed, or a pilot weighing whether to pay attention to his fuel gauge vs. continuing to stalk a menacing threat to others, or a father maintaining his craft's course despite his son's entreaties and the unknown menace from a shell shocked Brit, these 'decisions' as did many others in the film,resonated for me far beyond the general 'war is hell' cliches or the specific details of the Dunkirk story. Every day, each of us is confronted by the quandry of doing the expedient, self-benefitting thing and the 'right thing' which I believe is known to us when we sweep away our self-serving rationalizations.

      I could go on about how Dunkirk also had me ruminating on the military and the boys who are in it, how they got there and such, but my ultimate point is...

      That Nolan's film was able to illicit these questions in me, is another reason for Dunkirk's greatness in my view.

      My Top 5 War Movies list:
      1. Thin Red Line
      2. Dunkirk
      3. Paths of Glory
      4. Apocalypse Now
      5. Deer Hunter
      (Bumped to #6 by Dunkirk: Dr. Strangelove

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    3. Hell yes. Love this comment. And that is one damn fine war list. The Thin Red Line is still my top as well, but Dunkirk is damn high up there. Never seen anything like it. And I agree, the emotional resonance of the film is profound. It doesn't hit you right away, but then it slowly sinks in. I can't wait to see this movie again.

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  5. "And that sort of fresh vibrancy is enough to make me love a film. Of course, more factors are needed to achieve cinematic greatness, but seeing something I’ve never scene before is inspiring in a way that is all too rare."

    Very well said. I agree.

    We line up pretty well on this one. It's a scenario, though, where I am having a lot of difficulty emotionally with this film, even if I did, as you say, experience some super emotional highs. The technical achievement is worth the four stars I gave it at the end of my own review. But the newness? I guess in terms of the experimental nature is just messing with me. I can't go full OMG! This is perfect! if that makes sense.

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    1. Oh yeah, it certainly does. I do like seeing familiar concepts in completely new ways, but I get how that could diminish the wow factor for some. It's true, I spent some of the film trying to piece together where we were and when we were there, but that's what will make repeat viewings so active for me. Genuinely can't wait to see this again.

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  6. I haven’t had the chance to see it yet, but I was curious about your review as a lot of people are praising it. I tend to like Nolan’s films and his style so I’m sure this one would be quite a experience.

    Talking about war films, it’s not essentially a “war” film but it’s about the military, I finally watched Sidney Lumet’s The Hill a few weeks ago. I’m a big fan of Lumet but I hadn’t seen that one and I saw it mentioned on your blog. I think it was in a post about actors that have played Bond and you talked about Sean Connery… if you haven’t seen The Offence I think you’d enjoy that Lumet-Connery collaboration too.

    I loved The Hill! What a great film… my father is in the military and I can tell you that was an accurate description of how things work in there. I couldn’t stop laughing with Ossie Davis hilarious moment near the end, when he’s so done with everything. Loved Connery’s poise and rage, and what a surprise to see Roy Kinnear as I didn’t know Rory Kinnear’s father was an actor too! I’m a big big fan of Rory, very underrated actor. And of course also nice to see Redgrave (I've loved him since I saw The Browning Version), Harry Andrews and the other officers were terrific too. Brilliant film and brilliant cast, very glad to have found it, thanks to you!

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    1. SO happy you liked The Hill! I actually rewatched that a few months. Still holds up, all the way. Dunkirk is fantastic. So original and unique. Can't wait to hear your thoughts on it!

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  7. Finally got around to watching this and i LOVED it. Probably my favorite Nolan movie since The Prestige. I must admit i wasn't the biggest fan of his previous two movies, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, but here he finally hit it out of the park again for me. I also deliberately stayed away from any trailer or reviews before watching it so i went in completely blank not knowing anything. So i was very pleasantly surprised by how different it was than usual WWII movies. It was like you said about cutting off the first part of the movie. I remember feeling that way as well during it. They just threw you right into the chaos. And damn, that tension just keep building and building. There were several times where i was literally clutching on my seat in the theater. Hans Zimmer did an excellent job with the score here. The performances all around were also great. Even the kid from One Direction that i didn't know who was until someone pointed it out to me. This is definitely my favorite movie of the year so far and i'm really wondering if anything is gonna be able to top it.

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    1. Oh yeah, at this point, nothing I have seen this year comes remotely close to this. Like... at all. (The first half of 2017 is by far the weakest half year of new cinema I can recall, but that's another story.) I too went in blind to Dunkirk, which I was so thankful for. So glad you were able to avoid details about it before you saw it. I can't wait to see this damn thing again. What a damn experience it is.

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    2. Yeah, it has been a pretty bad year so far. Hopefully it picks up now after summer blockbuster season is over. It's so boring when you live in a small town that pretty much only shows the latest Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean on all three screens instead of some interesting smaller movies on at least one of them. So i'm already planning on watching Dunkirk again this weekend with some other friends i have convinced to go see it as well. It's definitely a movie that needs to be watched on the big screen.

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    3. Yeah it does seem like we have some good ones ahead of us. And man, I feel for you. I grew up in such a small town - it was 45 minutes to the closest theater, and far more than that for any sort of indie theater. Gotta keep our film addictions alive by any means necessary!

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  8. Always enjoy your reviews man! I had to tackle Dunkirk too: http://musicmotionmadnessfilm.blogspot.co.uk/2017/07/dunkirk.html

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