Sunday, July 30, 2017

Stubs - Dunkirk

Dunkirk (2017) Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D'Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Screenplay by Christopher Nolan. Produced by Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan. Run Time: 106 min. The United Kingdom, the United States, France, and the Netherlands. War, Drama

Like most years, 2017 shows that Hollywood loves sequels and remakes and the box office rewards them with such. Of the top ten films, most are either remakes: Beauty and the Beast (2017) and Spider-Man: Homecoming or sequels: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Logan, The Fate of the Furious and Despicable Me 3. Even Wonder Woman and The LEGO Batman Movie are sequels of sorts.

One thing you rarely see these days are big budget war films. That was one of the reasons I was intrigued about seeing Dunkirk, this year's highly anticipated Christopher Nolan film, based on the Battle of Dunkirk, which is the evacuation of the Allied Forces from France at the beginning of World War II and before the U.S. became involved in the conflict. From May 26 to June 4, 1940, nearly 400,000 troops of the armies of the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Poland, Belgium and the Netherlands were trapped by 800,000 Nazi troops at the beaches of Dunkerque, France waiting for rescue.

There is a real sense of hopelessness as the Nazis own the sky and rain down terror on the beach as well as the British Navy ships that try to get the troops home. But there is only one pier, the Mole, that can handle transport ships and the Navy is not willing to commit all of their vessels, wanting to save them back for the bigger fight coming. So, when the British Navy either couldn't or wouldn't come to their rescue, the call was put out for civilian boats which formed an Armada to get their soldiers off the beach.

That is not to say the soldiers are completely abandoned. A few British Air Force planes are sent to secure the skies, though their effort seems somewhat futile as they are far from their base and outnumbered in the skies.

And this is where Nolan plucks us down at the beginning of the film. The battle as such is already raging by the time we join a group of British soldiers as they walk through the streets of the French village looking for signs of life and anything to drink, smoke or eat. As they are pillaging, the group comes under fire and only one of them manages to survive. Viewing this sequence summarizes the film quite succinctly. While the film squarely places you in the action and you feel for the soldier's predicament, you don't really have any connection to them as individuals and thus no real empathy for them.

An extreme example, but so many of the actors look alike in Dunkirk.

There are several reasons this connection never truly gets made. To begin with, many of the characters look like each other, a partial byproduct of military life where everyone has roughly the same appearance and wardrobe. When everyone looks alike, they become one in a sea of people rather than an individual. It's harder to empathize with a faceless group.

Kenneth Branagh is one of the few recognizable actors in the film.

There are only a few recognizable actors, Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton, a fictious character based on James Campbell Clouston, the actual pier master who died in transit leaving Dunkirk. Mark Rylance plays Mr. Dawson, one of the civilian rescuers. Tom Hardy plays Farrier, one of the spitfire pilots, but you don't see his face until the very end. Finally, Harry Styles, ex from the group One Direction, plays one of the British soldiers, named Alex. If there is a lead, and that's sort of a question mark for me, it would be Fionn Whitehead, as Tommy, another British soldier. He's the sole survivor of the Dunkirk group from the beginning of the film. We keep coming back to him, but no more than we come back to Mr. Dawson or to Farrier.

Barely recognizable Harry Styles plays Alex on the left.

The acting is good, but not great. Everyone, including Branagh, appears to be playing a different sort of stereotype. He's the tough but fair commander; Tommy is the sort of everyman soldier who just wants to get home, etc. They are more like set pieces than actors, being moved about to tell the story, like furniture being moved about on a stage set.

Fionn Whitehead (Tommy) in his first film, plays the lead if there is one, in Dunkirk.

Just as there is no exposition, there is barely any dialogue in the film. As a result, for most of the characters, we know as much about them at the end as we know at the beginning. Of course, there are some exceptions, but they are few and far between. The characters that we do see engage in dialogue are not so much the soldiers but three of the rescuers. Theirs is the only backstory we get and even then it's not detailed, even the relationships between the three are not clearly defined.

What also doesn't help is that when there is dialogue the sound is muddied as if the recordings were done in another room, or that's at least how they sound. As a long time viewer of British television shows, I don't have a problem with accents, but I still have to be able to hear what's being said.

While I applaud Nolan for taking on a real-life adventure story, he doesn't quite get everything right.. And I'm not just talking about bending reality for the sake of drama. We are led to believe that only a fraction of the 400,000 soldiers made it out. The film floats 35 to 45,000, when in fact it was over 338,000 who did make it out. 60,000 lost souls would still be a great tragedy.

All of this is not to take away from the spectacle that Nolan presents. There is an enormity to the battle scene, the immense beach, the lines of soldiers waiting for relief, the sea that keeps them from their home and the sky, which, like the water, presents more of a barrier to salvation. Everything is big and menacing, bringing death from out of nowhere, sometimes from sights unseen. While we are definitely drawn into the action, the viewers own senses are led to anxiety by Hans Zimmer's sustained orchestrations that never let us off the hook with its constant beat.

But Nolan takes us out of the action by his non-linear storytelling style. Instead of a cohesive timeline, the story is broken into three main stories told simultaneously, but with one lasting a week, one lasting a day and one an hour, meaning that you go from one story taking place during daylight to another taking place at night to third being told during the day, then you go back to the continuation of the first story back in the day followed by a continuation of the second at night and so on and so on. This technique definitely takes you out of the story and reminds you that you are watching a movie and that you're being manipulated. It's a little like seeing the man behind the curtain, the magic gets lost.

The film looks great (I saw the 70mm presentation) and it tells a big story in a big way. The only thing missing are the people. I was the one in my family who most wanted to see this film, but I came away feeling a little disappointed. Sorry to say, I can't recommend it. There may be a sea of soldiers, but little humanity to be found on the beaches of Dunkirk.

No comments:

Post a Comment