“Dunkirk” — Epic Yet Intimate: A Written Film Review

Posted: July 23rd, 2017 | Filed under: Cinema | No Comments »

War movies are not easy.

To watch.

To make in a way that is innovative, illuminating. And entertaining.

Christopher Nolan, one of the most difficult contemporary directors to figure out, has done something extraordinary in his telling of the now nigh mythic tale of British resolve, when her troops were pinned against the ocean on the beaches of Dunkirk in WWII.

Nolan’s film, told in three overlapping stories — by air, by land, by sea — is panoramic. Shots of dogfights against the Luftwaffe. Shots of thousands of soldiers lined on the broad swaths of sand, nervously awaiting rescue.

It is also intimate. Pilots fighting to protect those below. Civilians, part of the incomprehensible armada coming to save the day, and soldiers, young and scared, doing what they can to try to survive.

Those factors in and of themselves would have been enough for audiences to savor and marvel at.

Yet Nolan took it a step further. The film not only personalizes the experience while exposing the rigors all faced in those dire moments, but it is, by most accounts, historically accurate.

Plus, a mighty plus indeed, the chronicle unfolds without hyperbole, and with little emotional manipulation.

Even those moments, it turns out, were generally accurate. Like one scene near the finale, meant to depict the frayed nerves of the combatants then out of harm’s way, when the soldiers make it back on British soil. One of the pilots is berated by a foot soldier. “Where were you guys,” the guy who fought on land asks the flyboy?

Turns out the undermanned pilots indeed had a Vietnam Vet kind of unwelcome back home. Yet forged ahead.

To achieve his end — an engaging, entertaining film that puts personal peril on display — Nolan and the screenwriters made some interesting choices.

There is only minimal back story. No explanation how and why the British forces found themselves surrounded.

There is hardly even a mention that Germany — Nazis, the Third Reich — is the enemy. The focus is only on the moment by moment hell of war. Dire straits are inevitable. It is the nature of that ever menacing bête noir.

One intermingled segment of the tripartite plotline focuses on infantryman Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and his endeavors to escape home across the English Channel however he can.

Another showcases Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son and friend who are part of Winston Churchill’s audacious plan to have a flotilla of civilian boats — fishing boats, sail boats, pleasure craft — cross the channel and bring home the boys.

The third focuses on pilots, too few pilots in too few planes, dogfighting the Germans in the air to protect the rescue vessels below.

Tom Hardy plays one of the pilots, Farrier. In a stunning bit of acting, the kind we’ve come to expect from Hardy, his face is shown in close up in severe peril, in his cockpit. Because he is wearing his goggle mask, all we see are his eyes. Yet we feel all his fear, and all his resolve to complete his mission.

This is not “Black Hawk Down,” nor “Pork Chop Hill.” No posed cinematic heroics.

This is ordinary people, fighting for a cause, and having to tap into whatever resources they can to survive.

There is a matter of fact quality to the filmmaker’s perspective. It doesn’t matter how and why these soldiers and civilians got in the dangerous situations in which they find themselves.

What matters is how they coped or didn’t.

That’s the intimacy portrayed.

“Dunkirk” is filmmaking, majestic yet immediate, at its most cinematic and brilliant.

— c d kaplan

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