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Obstinate About Surviving

By (August 1, 2017) No Comment

Directed by Christopher Nolan
Warner Bros, 2017

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is great, and will be held in the same regard as other great war films before it – Saving Private Ryan, All Quiet on the Western Front, Apocalypse Now and The Dirty Dozen. It’s moving and well-crafted and visceral. It knows its genre.

The movie manages its lean 107-minute runtime, in part, by avoiding a peacetime opening, or some tranquil moment before battle, wherein our characters get a chance to gab, show their bond, endear the audience to them. Dunkirk begins with a silence that’s quickly ruptured by gunfire. Bombs are dropped and soldiers scream, planes are shot down and crash into the water – it’s incredibly loud but, at the same time, has maybe a couple thousand words of dialogue and, in that respect, feels quiet, cerebral, more like a movie of the 1920s.

In late May and early June of 1940s, in the north of France, a swift and underestimated invasion by Nazi troops drove some 400,000 soldiers (of the British Expeditionary Forces, BEF, as well as French, Canadian, and Belgian troops) to the beach at Dunkirk. Winston Churchill launched Operation Dynamo, a rallying of civilian vessels to cross the English Channel and help evacuate the beach. Over 300,000 men were rescued in the effort (a feat due as much to the courage of civilians as to Adolf Hitler’s puzzling decision to hang back from the beach once he had all these guys cornered).

The men in the movie (every character is a man) emote little more than courage and conviction and fear and thus, in that respect, aren’t really characters. Or at least not very good ones. But the English cast is outstanding. Much of the praise being lavished on pop star Harry Styles is a bit tongue-in-cheek but he does well here as a flustered, nervous, whatever-it-takes twentysomething who’s obstinate about surviving. Tom Hardy’s soft-spoken pensive courage as a fighter pilot reaches a moving conclusion, and same goes for the mute Aneurin Barnard. But it’s Mark Rylance (winner of 2015’s Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in Bridge of Spies), as an equally soft-spoken civilian boatman, who shines as one of the movie’s foremost talents on that side of the camera. The performances bear the weight of weak characterization – which I’d submit is Dunkirk’s only weakness – but it’s a necessary weakness, because any extra moment given to their shaping would have broken the tension, which is held, with slight ebbs, from the first scene to the last.

When Sergei Eisenstein made his trilogy of films – Strike and Battleship Potemkin and October – celebrating Lenin and the Russian revolution he, too, had cardboard cutouts for characters (though they were thinner and way flimsier than Nolan’s here) as a reflection of not just the everyman aspect to what he was depicting – the idea that you, too, could be so bold – but also as a reflection of Lenin’s socialist notion that this isn’t about the individual. The revolution was a collective movement, Eisenstein was suggesting, by and for the people.

That’s not quite what Nolan is suggesting here but I do think that he’s using his flat characters for a similar purpose. Dunkirk is a celebration of courage, community, and country. The orchestral swell of stringplay when we see a fleet of civilian boats approach Dunkirk’s shore, as well as a voiceover recitation of Churchill’s vow to fight them here and there, are the film’s two emotional spikes. With characters who are basically just embodiments of fear and courage, the audience can project themselves, or somebody they know, into the situation and therefore, in a way, understand it a little better. These were just random people. Plucked from civilian life.

I’m moved by gestures of communal solidarity, the way traffic parts to accommodate an ambulance for example, and so here, too, I was moved. The teary-eyed relief with which stoic officers, facing doom on the shore with tight-lipped dread, greet the fog-speckling arrival of civilian boats shows the pumping of a heart beneath all the action and spectacle. The fighter pilots played by Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden navigate the skies over Operation Dynamo with curt, relaxed, friendly exchanges while communicating, with tight-lipped (Lowden) and sad-eyed (Hardy) neutrality, a mortal resignation to what might happen here. It’s affecting, but solely because of the talent on screen. It’s hard to imagine any tears were shed over the script, but there were sniffles in the audience.

It’s hard to imagine somebody being bored by Dunkirk. The bassline thump of a warplane’s rickety propellers, the string-focused score reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock, and Nolan’s tactful bouncing among three intertwined stories coalesce here into a fair bit of writhing and fist-clenching and long, slow, whistling releases of breath you didn’t know you were holding.

Time will tell if Nolan has achieved greatness here but, as a technical and aesthetic achievement, Dunkirk conveys its prestige while simultaneously working as a solid summer movie, which is remarkable, because normally you’d think of such a noble-looking movie, such a moving movie, something with so much scope and prestige as a fall release. Oscar season. But the fact that this comes out in the heart of summer is, I think, a window into Nolan’s goals.

I’ve read and been swayed by the remarks of flustered filmmakers and musicians and writers who hate that their work is so often reviewed within the context of what they’ve done in the past, and held in comparison to it, so I’ll try not to do that here and to focus, rather, on what I think Nolan wants to achieve, and why his work is special. Something I’ve been celebrating about Dunkirk, in relation to this summer’s other blockbusters, is that it doesn’t belong to a franchise and its strength, therefore, isn’t dependent on weight that’s been lifted in earlier installments (it’s also the first non-franchise movie to top the box office this summer). At 107 minutes, it also stands out for its brevity – which we wouldn’t even have called “brevity” ten years ago. A 107-minute runtime would have been normal for a summer release. But now even over-the-top action schlockfests like Fate of the Furious routinely pass the second hour mark (or, in F8’s case, edge toward the third).

A recent HBO documentary, Hitchcock/Truffaut, about the marathon interview of English filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock by French filmmaker Francois Truffaut, reveals that a part of what made Hitchcock so forthcoming in this book-length conversation is that, while he very much prized his status as a director for the People, Hitchcock also wanted to be respected as an artist. The two don’t often go hand-in-hand.

Without ranking Dunkirk within Nolan’s body of work I’d say that it’s another solid example of his effort to straddle a line between the highbrow and commercial that Hitchcock seldom managed (even though Hitchcock is responsible for the most dissected scene in cinema, Janet Leigh’s murder in Psycho, he didn’t enjoy that serious academic consideration until the 1970s).

With 2014’s Interstellar Nolan sought a balance of the cosmic, the metaphysical, and the commercial with a nearly-three-hour epic that garnered comparison to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (if not the same praise). It was an ambitious and risky project to take on after the conclusion of his Dark Knight trilogy, which began with the solid but inauspicious Batman Begins in 2005 and quickly grew to reflect the ambition of its filmmaker – who seemed to be simultaneously taking this billion-dollar property seriously, more serious than any filmmaker before him, and also maybe using it as a vehicle toward greater projects (when Nolan was asked in a Q&A, “How do you pitch a movie like Inception to a tight-pocketed studio,” he responded, “First you make a movie like The Dark Knight”).

Nolan’s got some hipster credit for his dislike of cell phones, his championing of filmstock (particularly 70mm – whose resurgent popularity, thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight, is strange but nice), and for imbuing his Batman franchise with moral gravity (this year’s melodramatic, ultra-violent, western-themed Logan was hailed as “Marvel’s Dark Knight”). Any hipster credential is grounds for the highbrow to dismiss an artist’s work as temporary, a fad, but Dunkirk establishes that Nolan’s talent as a filmmaker, a storyteller, is at this point hard to contest. What it also shows is that Nolan is closest to greatness when he pares things down. Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises and Inception suffer from the weight of everything he’s trying to juggle. His hand is strongest with smaller fare. The Prestige and Insomnia and now this.

Dunkirk, for all of its bluster and beauty and noise, is the product of a filmmaker’s restraint and, if assessed within the context of Nolan’s work, shows a steadier, cooler, more mature hand than the one that helmed its precursors. Not that the earlier films didn’t have those attributes, in varying degrees, but there’s a self-awareness to some of the recent stuff that isn’t here, in Dunkirk. Interstellar felt like a conscious effort to throw his hat into the ring of sci-fi mastery, Dark Knight Rises chased a sweeping operatic conclusion to the mythos of the franchise rather than to the story arc of a trilogy, and Inception felt like an effort on Nolan’s part to get as far away from Batman as possible. I wouldn’t doubt that Nolan had greatness on his mind while working on Dunkirk, the ranks he might join with this sort of budget and freedom, but it doesn’t feel blatant. Maybe with the triumphant reading of Churchill’s words at the end you get can the vibe of a filmmaker trying to make a movie for his nation – but it wasn’t so heavy-handed as the reading of Abraham Lincoln’s letter to Mrs. Bixby (words of condolence to the mother of five sons killed in the Civil War) in Saving Private Ryan, or the literal equation, in Sergeant York, of Christianity and warfare (the way Gary Cooper is alternating, on a literal mountaintop, between two books: the Bible and a volume of American history). Dunkirk is a spectacle that isn’t flashy. It’s noble, but not sanctimonious. It’s the work of a filmmaker at the top of his craft.

Alex Sorondo is a writer and film critic living in Miami and the host of the Thousand Movie Project. His fiction has been published in First Inkling Magazine and Jai-Alai Magazine. This is his first piece for Open Letters Monthly.