Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Beach Front: DUNKIRK

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a logistical triumph about a logistical nightmare. The film tells the story of one of World War II’s nerve-wracking retreats. It’s 1940. British and French forces are repelled from the mainland, trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk with nothing but the water behind them. Off in the distance, perhaps, they can almost convince themselves England can be seen. Alas, it’s so close, yet so far away, with hundreds of thousands of soldiers sitting ducks for the Nazi bombers thundering overhead and the encroaching Axis ground forces held back by Allied gunners behind makeshift sandbag perimeters. As the film unspools, the desperate stranded men look for ways to help speed up their rescue, while we know that help is on the way agonizingly slowly. Nolan’s film has something of a Hemingway spirit about it. Dialogue is terse, to the point. The narrative is in the details, the soft surf of the tides and sea foam, the oil and explosions, the eerie quiet in the air and the dirt under fingernails, the wet hair and panicked expressions betraying stiff-upper-lip duty-bound effort. Nolan, operating at the height of his filmmaking powers, marshals his resources to not so much tell any single man’s story, but to orchestrate an experience that’ll do the real stressful cacophony justice.

He shows us this war story by land, by sea, and by air. With a deft structural trick, he weaves together three distinct speeds and perspectives with which to pass through this historical moment. By land, the soldiers (like those played by Fionn Whitehead, Cillian Murphy, and Harry Styles) and their commander (Kenneth Branagh) fret and plan and hope while under constant threat of enemy fire as they await evacuation, a story taking place over a week. By sea, we find British citizen sailors called in to help speed up the transporting of the troops (an event tenderly memorialized from the homefront’s point of view in William Wyler’s 1942 classic Mrs. Miniver) because the Navy’s destroyers can’t approach the shallows near the beach. We follow one of the boats (captained by Mark Rylance) as its crew makes its way into battle with a sense of dutiful patriotism and a solemn desire to help, a journey there and (hopefully) back again that takes a day. By air, we find the air force, strategically sending a small squadron (led by Tom Hardy) to provide cover in the final stretch of the rescue effort, a crucial dogfight taking place over the course of an hour. Nolan, with his usual crisp, precise, and confident cross-cutting (think Inception’s dream layers, Interstellar’s time change, or Memento’s backwards-and-forwards design), tells these three actions simultaneously, cutting between them to heighten suspense and danger, often in clever matches – floods of water, rat-a-tat guns, grim expressions. 

By the time the stories start to intersect, weaving details in and out, allowing us to see, say, a plane crash first as a moment from above, then floating next to it with another group of character’s later. Eventually, all three storylines converge, climax upon climax upon climax, every character’s peak danger and despair in the same moment of converging crescendos. This remarkably effective structure – experimental, but completely coherent in its logic and effects – is in service of an impeccably detailed recreation. Although the characters it focuses on are sketched quickly, fictional composite stand-ins for the masses of people involved and impacted, the overall sense of fastidious reenactment gives the film the historical weight under its immediacy. This is a lean, tense true-life thriller, every moment pulsing with the unforgiving tick, tick, tick of time running out (further emphasized by Hans Zimmer’s relentlessly simmering score). Shooting on film, and full IMAX film for many scenes, allows cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema to craft shots of remarkable size and scale, with tangible texture and detailed grit, expansively filling the frame with eerie pale light, foreboding blank beaches, cavernous clear skies, and vast expanses of ocean. The men huddled against the forces of warfare are arranged in patterns and lines, formations and orders, holding steady to rules and regulations even in these desperate hours. 

These groups of men are buffeted by elaborate and concussive suspense sequences, immersive effects and booming sound design building dread out of the roaring engines of approaching bombers, the slow smack of waves against a tiny boat, the sputtering propellers of a struggling aircraft, an unforgiving howling wind whipping at frayed nerves. The individuals involved are merely part of the crowd. They aren’t given lengthy moments of backstory and exposition, or made into easy heroes and villains. In fact, the enemy remains unspoken, barely glimpsed behind their weapons of war. Nolan’s focus is on the effect the situation has on the groups of people involved under the vice grip of unceasing peril. They simply do what they must, in every moment, in hopes to see the next. This is an extraordinarily well-made, exceptionally well-crafted film of beautifully elaborate detail building a work of startling simplicity: three straight lines concluding in the same inevitable. It’s a film about process and strategy, how they hold together and fall apart under tough conditions when survival instincts kick in. It’s about how even in defeat you can find dignity, even in fear you can find small acts of heroism. Best of all, it’s an experience that’s uniquely cinematic, overwhelming in its scale and power.

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