• [The Daily] Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk

    By David Hudson

    Dunkirk07172017_large


    “Steven Spielberg laid claim to the Normandy beach landing,” begins Variety’s Peter Debruge, “Clint Eastwood owns Iwo Jima, and now, Christopher Nolan has authored the definitive cinematic version of Dunkirk. Unlike those other battles, however, this last was not a conventional victory, but more of a salvaged retreat, as the German offensive forced a massive evacuation of English troops early in World War II. And unlike those other two directors, Nolan is only nominally interested in the human side of the story as he puts his stamp on the heroic rescue operation, offering a bravura virtual-eyewitness account from multiple perspectives—one that fragments and then craftily interweaves events as seen from land, sea and air.”

    And these “land, sea and air strands of the story unspool simultaneously, even though each one spans a different period of time,” notes the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin. “It’s a structural device that sounds confusing on paper but is creamily intuitive in practice, creating an unshakeable sense that these scattered events are somehow driving towards a single pivotal historical moment.”

    Matt Singer maps those strands at ScreenCrush: “Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) spends an entire week waiting for rescue on the beaches of Dunkirk. After the British government orders private ships to assist in the evacuation, a father (Mark Rylance) and son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his friend (Barry Keoghan) spend a tumultuous day crossing the English Channel on their way to France. Meanwhile, in the skies above, a fighter pilot (Tom Hardy) and two wingmen spend just one hour providing air support for the evacuation, carefully monitoring their fuel supplies while shooting down German planes. . . . Dunkirk’s unique time structure will delight fans of puzzle movies; video essays will be published from now until doomsday trying to figure out exactly where to place each of the events on a timeline.”

    Dunkirk is the movie Christopher Nolan’s entire career has been building up to, in ways that even he may not have realized,” proposes Bilge Ebiri in the Village Voice. “He’s taken the British Expeditionary Force’s 1940 evacuation from France, early in World War II—a moment of heroism-in-defeat that has become an integral part of Britain’s vision of itself—and turned it into a nesting doll of increasingly breathless ticking-clock narratives. Some filmgoers might be expecting a sprawling, grandiose war epic. Instead, Nolan gives us one of the leanest, most ingenious studio films in quite a while: an intercutting montage of competing timelines that expand and contract and collide in ways both inevitable and surprising. And somehow, it’s also uncharacteristically intimate.”

    “Nearly every 70 mm frame of Christopher Nolan’s monumental new film is lodged in the heart of the heart of World War II,” writes David Ehrlich at IndieWire, “but you never see the Germans. Their submarines lurk invisibly beneath the waters offshore, their planes swoop in the distance overhead, and their foot soldiers remain off-camera as they amass on the other side of the dunes and wait for the order to attack. . . . In other words, they are the perfect antagonists for a PG-13 war epic, their absence allowing this story of panic and isolation to celebrate Britain’s past while also condemning its Brexit-era present. . . . Cleaving closer to Sartre than Spielberg, Dunkirk is a stunning work of raw spectacle that searches for order in the midst of chaos. It’s the most contradictory film that Christopher Nolan has ever made, and—not incidentally—also the best.”

    “It is part disaster movie, part compressed war epic, and all horribly appropriate for these Brexit times,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. “This is a powerful, superbly crafted film with a story to tell, avoiding war porn in favor of something desolate and apocalyptic, a beachscape of shame, littered with soldiers zombified with defeat, a grimly male world with hardly any women on screen.” And he agrees: “It is Nolan’s best film so far.”

    It’s “a war film like few others, one that may employ a large and expensive canvas but that conveys the whole through isolated, brilliantly realized, often private moments more than via sheer spectacle, although that is here, too,” writes the Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy. “Somber, grim and as resolute in its creative confidence as the British are in this ultimate historical narrative of having one's back to the wall, this is the film that Christopher Nolan earned the right to make thanks to his abundant contributions to Warner Bros. with his Dark Knight trilogy. He's made the most of it.”

    Dunkirk is the war movie as sensory overload,” writes Matt Prigge for Metro US, suggesting that “a pre-film Wikipedia visit would help you get your bearings. But Nolan . . . doesn’t want you to get your bearings. He wants you to be as lost, confused, freaked out as the soldiers.”

    “Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar) shot the film using 65mm and IMAX cameras,” writes Alonso Duralde at TheWrap, “and while the big scenes of spectacle are unquestionably sweeping and impressive, it’s the smaller moments that stayed with me more, whether it’s those cascading leaflets in the opening scene, the terrifying majesty of a fighter plane gliding with its engines off, or a harrowing sequence involving a downed plane that will doubtless be used by English teachers to illustrate what poet Stevie Smith meant when she wrote ‘Not Waving but Drowning.’”

    “Some viewers may have trouble engaging emotionally with the film, but its sheer power, especially in its rousing climax, is hard to deny,” writes Pierce Conran at ScreenAnarchy.

    “With a zippy 106-minute runtime (that’s over an hour shorter than Interstellar), the storytelling is economic and assured,” writes Drew Taylor at the Playlist. “There isn’t a single wasted moment or unnecessary detail. Everything is enthralling and narratively necessary.”

    It’s “a film that has literally no down time,” agrees Mike Ryan at Uproxx.

    Screen’s Fionnuala Halligan finds that “designer Nathan Crowley’s three worlds are distinct yet collide; sharp editing by Lee Smith lends a razor’s edge to the script. And sound: Hans Zimmer’s score picks up on the noise and terror to amplify and enhance, ultimately teasing with Elgar’s Nimrod but never overtly manipulating.”

    Interviews with Nolan: Cara Buckley (New York Times), David Jenkins (Little White Lies, where Adam Woodward gets a few words with the cast), and Josh Rottenberg (Los Angeles Times).

    Nearly every review so far has encouraged its readers to see Dunkirk projected in 70 mm. At IndieWire, Zack Sharf has a list of theaters where you can.

    Updates, 7/18: From Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com: “Like a more restless cousin of Terrence Malick, who infused the combat picture with Transcendental philosophy in The Thin Red Line, or Robert Altman, who painted microcosmic panoramas of civilization in such films as Nashville and Short Cuts, Dunkirk treats every English soldier on that beach and in assorted nearby planes and boats as part of a collective organism, less interesting for their biographical details than for the roles they play in the drama of history, however large or small they may be. Dunkirk is what I like to call an Ant Farm Picture: it's a portrait of a society, or a species, fighting for its life.”

    For Philip Concannon, writing for The Skinny, “the ending, with a speech playing over a montage that ties off each strand, is a little too familiarly Nolan-ish to really landhttp://time.com/4864049/dunkirk-christopher-nolan-interview/. Still, this is a film that largely plays to the director's considerable strengths.”

    Updates, 7/19: “Like a lot of movies worth writing about at length, Christopher Nolan’s terrific new film, Dunkirk, is powered by an engine of combusting contradictions: it’s at once minimalist and maximalist, cynical and dopey, a big-boy white elephant art film that is actually a lean and mean suspense set-piece machine.” Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the A.V. Club: “Dunkirk finds Nolan playing both genre director and composer-conductor—a 107-minute oratorio for dead wet beaches, gunfire, Stuka dive bombers, Spitfires, ticking clocks, burning oil, and sinking ships, in the key of the filmmaker’s career-long obsession with water and drowning.”

    For Jake Cole, writing for Slant, the opening stretch is “arguably the single greatest piece of filmmaking of Nolan’s career. . . . Unfortunately, the precise artistry that shapes this sequence is lost when Nolan broadens his scope to take in the simultaneous narratives . . . Dunkirk does boast a few images on a par with the best things Nolan has ever shot. . . . As with his recent spate of blockbusters, however, his fussy ambition ultimately results in aesthetic and thematic sloppiness.”

    Dunkirk is extraordinary not just because it’s ambitious and beautifully executed, but because Nolan, who both wrote and directed it, has put so much care into its emotional details—and has asked so much of, and trusted, his actors.” Time’s Stephanie Zacharek: “As great filmmakers before him—Lewis Milestone, Sam Fuller, Brian De Palma—knew, you can’t tell a story of war without faces. Faces carry history.”

    More interviews with Nolan: Eliza Berman (Time) and Gwilym Mumford and Jonross Swaby (Guardian, 7’12”).

    Updates, 7/20: Bilge Ebiri has gathered links to all his writing on Nolan in a single entry.

    “My father was lucky.” Jonathan Raban has a rich story to tell in the Stranger. “Watching Dunkirk, I was again and again reminded of Wilfred Owen, the British poet who was killed, aged 25, in the final week of World War I, and wrote, ‘My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.’ That is the problem with Dunkirk: It is too hurried, too eager to move on to the next shot, from sea to sky, from sky to the soldiers on the beach, to bother with the pity.”

    Dunkirk instantly enters the pantheon of great war films,” writes Marc Savlov in the Austin Chronicle. “I’d go so far to say that Dunkirk could easily serve as its own master class in the art of film editing.”

    The Guardian’s Andrew Pulver suggests that “with Dunkirk, Nolan may at last be able to walk the Kubrick walk. Most obviously because as a high-impact, morally scrupulous war film, Dunkirk bears direct comparison to Paths of Glory, Kubrick’s diamond-hard fable of outrage from 1957.”

    “But does it stack up to anything more than precision-tooled spectacle?” asks Adam Woodward. Because “while Dunkirk is unimpeachable as a formal exercise, it’s telling that the sense of scale you get from it is of the production itself rather than what the film is depicting.”

    Also at Little White Lies, Mark Allison notes that “the sight of a British serviceman in combat has gradually vanished from our screens over the last 40 years. . . . It’s not the case that we don’t like to think about war anymore—indeed, defeating the Nazis and the ‘Blitz spirit’ remain a national obsession—but in recent years, British films have come to deal with conflict in distinctly opaque terms.”

    Writing for The Conversation, Nina Wardleworth notes that “the story of the French army after Dunkirk is altogether less glorious, and perhaps because of that, less widely remembered. . . . French media coverage of the premiere of Nolan’s film has presented the events as a British story in which French soldiers were involved, not a shared wartime narrative.”

    David Greene talks with Nolan for NPR.

    At the Playlist, Oliver Lyttelton and Jessica Kiang write up the “25 Best War Movies of All Time.”

    Updates, 7/21: The New York TimesManohla Dargis finds Dunkirk to be “insistently humanizing despite its monumentality, a balance that is as much a political choice as an aesthetic one. . . . Mr. Nolan’s unyielding emphasis on the soldiers—and on war as it is experienced rather than on how it is strategized—blurs history even as it brings the present and its wars startlingly into view. Dunkirk is a tour de force of cinematic craft and technique, but one that is unambiguously in the service of a sober, sincere, profoundly moral story that closes the distance between yesterday’s fights and today’s.”

    “Christopher Nolan has made a stark and harrowing war movie muddled by his signature ‘Nolan Time,’ that arty temporal scramble that he thinks is more illuminating than it is,” writes David Edelstein at Vulture. “Although I find most of Nolan’s work to be pulp bloated by pomposity, a good many intelligent people love his films. Apart from its philosophical heft, Nolan Time has the benefit of psyching audiences out, keeping them so busy trying to make linear sense of what they’re watching that they miss the obviousness of the plotting.”

    It irks Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey as well: “It’s tough to overstate how well literally every other element of Dunkirk lands—how, this complaint aside, it’s a genuinely powerful and emotionally resonant glimpse into the fog of war, told viscerally and masterfully by a top-notch filmmaker in full command of his gifts. But in contemplating its structure, this long-time Nolan defender found himself thinking, for the first time, something I’ve heard far too often from his critics: that maybe Christopher Nolan is just a tad too clever for his own good.”

    Here’s a defense of sorts from Robert Horton in the Seattle Weekly: “When you cut between two escalating situations—for instance, people trying to escape a burning house as firefighters across town scramble toward it—you build suspense. He proves the point repeatedly in Dunkirk, making the pulse pound even with three escalating situations and even when our brains tell us the events aren’t actually happening at the same time. Given the complicated time-shifting, when the storylines do finally coincide, it’s a thrill—although it’s possible you’re more impressed with the filmmaker’s bravado than with anything the characters are doing onscreen.”

    “I’m not alone in having found Nolan’s direction of action confusing and irksome in the past,” writes David Cairns. “Nothing to worry about here: he’s helped by the very clear geography of the beach: sea over there, land over here. Germans up there, Brits down here. In the aerial combat, he might have gotten into serious trouble (three-dimensional battlefield) but by restricting our POV to the British pilots, he keeps it very sharp and taut and lucid. When the Spitfires are sneaking up on Heinkels we see it from the Brit pilot’s viewpoint. When the Germans sneak up on the Spitfires their ack-ack is a complete surprise, as it would be if you were there. This means losing out on dramatic he’s-behind-you irony but gaining pretty solid clarity and audience identification, better than in several of the old war movies I’ve run.”

    “There’s no glory here, just survival,” writes Time Out’s Dave Calhoun. “It’s a sombre tribute that makes a distant war feel uncomfortably present.”

    “So how does a British historian who teaches and writes about World War II rate it as history?” asks John Broich at Slate. “In terms of accuracy, it rates pretty highly.” He then takes a look at “choices made in the name of dramatizing experience [to] check them against the evidence as embodied by eyewitness accounts and documentary sources.”

    Updates, 7/22: At Reverse Shot, Julien Allen suggests that Dunkirk is “what Francis Coppola wanted Apocalypse Now to be: a ‘sensurramic, Irwin Allen-style experience.’ And Nolan gets much closer to this than Coppola did—perhaps because Coppola just couldn’t help but make something better. . . . Dunkirk represents a bend in the road for Nolan: a purification of his filmmaking through a deliberate discarding of heavy-handed, bombastic editorializing.”

    “The film is impressive, immense, immersive, yes—but is it anything else?” asks Adam Nayman, writing for Cinema Scope. “Nolan is an essentially Platonic filmmaker—he thinks in terms of absolute forms, and then fits his characters to their contours . . . Reviewing Samuel Maoz’s gimmicky festival-circuit favorite Lebanon (2009) a few years ago in this space, Andrew Tracy asked what is to be done with ‘frictionless, impenetrable films whose narrowly defined perfection is their obscenity.’ Dunkirk is superior to Lebanon, I think, and didn’t strike me as obscene—earnest and incredibly ambitious is more like it. But my mind went to the question anyway.”

    “You come away, at the very least, cautiously nursing the feeling that no mainstream film since the opening of Saving Private Ryan—an avowed reference of Nolan’s—has reinvented the urgency of war cinema this thoroughly,” writes Jonathan Romney for Film Comment. “The aspect of Dunkirk which makes it a truly serious work—and the aspect that’s most likely to alienate more jingoistic fans of war cinema—is the chilling light it casts on the will to survive.”

    “Nolan has described Dunkirk as less a war film than a survival film,” notes Anthony Lane in the New Yorker, “but it’s even more basic than that, in the way it lures us in and keeps us hooked. It is about what we do—how we suffer and retort—when things happen to us, and when the happening grows far beyond our control.”

    “Even most anti-war movies have an element of hard-charging heroism, so it’s difficult to recall one that stews so unnervingly in helplessness the way Dunkirk does,” writes Sean Burns for WBUR.

    For the Atlantic’s Christopher Orr, “it is hard to imagine a better tribute to this victory of survival than Nolan’s spare, stunning, extraordinarily ambitious film.”

    “Nolan proves once again to be one of the few master auteurs to be using the studio system to his advantage,” writes Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema.

    “Any historical drama is necessarily a summary, and will approach a threshold at which distillation becomes dilution,” writes Jonathan Kiefer in the Notebook. “Nolan doesn’t seem too worried about this, and Dunkirk’s eruptive brevity is almost refreshing. The war-movie milieu serves him well by easing the burden of exposition; with basic story parameters at once familiar and self-evident, Nolan here reduces the laborious explanatory dialogue that’s long been a toxic byproduct of his ambition, concentrating freely on the structural mechanism, those ticking rhythmic units. His drive—that career-spanning urge toward unconventional chronology—is downright mathematical, a matter of getting the proportions right. In Dunkirk’s contrapuntal pacing, as much as in its elaborate production, we behold an impressive feat of management.”

    “A fascinating disconnection lays at the heart of Dunkirk as it did with Interstellar too,” writes Roderick Heath at Ferdy on Films. “Nolan is a filmmaker who wants to engage in a voluble sense of human vulnerability, and yet he has no gift at all for engaging with his characters in a manner that any true dramatist can. Many said that about Stanley Kubrick, one of Nolan’s evident and oft-cited inspirations, as well, but there were qualities to be picked up in Kubrick, from his coal-black humour to his sarcastic sensuality and the genuine rigor of his shot-for-shot cinema, that are totally absent from Nolan.”

    “By the end of the film, the idea behind Dunkirk that we're trying to get across to the audience is, it's not about individual heroics,” Nolan tells Tom Shone in the Telegraph. “It's about communal heroism. It's about the tremendous sense of community that was vital to the success of the operation. That's what makes the unique story and that's why I think it's always served as something of a rallying point for British people. I also think it's a very universal story. It's really about the individual drive for survival. And the very universal concept of a desperation to get home.”

    Updates, 7/23: Dunkirk “will doubtless become the definitive cinematic depiction of this remarkable chapter of history,” argues Mark Kermode in the Observer, where Ryan Gilbey profiles Nolan.

    Writing for Vague Visages, Forrest Cardamenis points out that, in one scene, a conversation “eventually settles on a two-shot, with two actors facing the camera, but Nolan then inexplicably cuts to a medium close-up as one delivers a line and goes briefly into a shot/reverse-shot with both actors facing the camera before it cuts away with a point-of-view shot and at last resolves on a reaction shot. Throughout the film, it takes Nolan several shots to do what other directors could do in two. Space is also insufficiently established, as Nolan plays fast and loose with basic rules of editing for no apparent reason, and without devising alternative means of orienting the viewer. . . . Dunkirk, like Interstellar before it, fails . . . because . . . Nolan is not a gifted enough filmmaker to justify these films’ more demanding conceits.”

    For Nick Schager, writing at the Daily Beast, “Nolan proves himself a daring artist, employing technology that’s at once classical (70mm) and cutting-edge (IMAX) to beget a uniquely immersive moviegoing experience, one that’s marked by forward-thinking inventiveness, even as it harkens back to the days of Cinerama and its engulfed-by-the-screen grandeur. That he also seamlessly marries CGI with all manner of practical effects only further enhances his material’s old/new world nature, leaving it feeling like the rare big-screen extravaganza that genuinely straddles the line between the past and the future.”

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2 comments

  • By Malickite
    July 17, 2017
    08:30 PM

    "“It is part disaster movie, part compressed war epic, and all horribly appropriate for these Brexit times,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw." Give me a break...
    Reply
    • By JDHMathews
      July 18, 2017
      06:32 PM

      This comment made my day