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By land, by sea and — especially — by air in 'Dunkirk'
With a bare minimum of dialogue, and a brutal maximum of scenes depicting near-drowning situations in and around Dunkirk, France, in late May and early June 1940, Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk" is a unique waterboarding of a film experience.
Many will respond to it, primally, as a grueling dramatization of what the English call "the Dunkirk spirit," one that turned a perilous mass evacuation of British and Allied troops, under German fire (though bad weather kept the Luftwaffe largely at bay), into a show of collective resilience at a crucial early crossroads of World War II.
Operation Dynamo, Winston Churchill called it. Thanks to a series of interlocking lucky breaks (including the decision, probably Hitler's, to call off the Nazi tanks before they got to Dunkirk), somewhere between 340,000 and 400,000 Allied soldiers, mostly British and French, were rescued from the beach and harbor of the smoldering coastal city.
Operation Dynamo was dominated by naval vessels and "one of the most oddly assorted flotillas in history." This is how historian C.L. Sulzberger described the hundreds of civilian boats that made it across the English Channel, under German fire, and back again, carrying survivors of Dunkirk.
Nolan's somewhat perversely structured screenplay tells three stories, also interlocking, laced with flashbacks and revisits to scenes, moments, really, you may not realize are revisits from a new perspective. Nolan lays the groundwork as clearly as possible with title cards, though if you don't realize "The Mole" refers to an 8-foot-wide pier, you may spend an inordinate amount of viewing time trying to find the spy in the narrative. (Nolan plays on this double meaning, deliberately.)
On land, storyline one, aka "The Mole," unfolds over a week's time. The young soldier in British uniform we follow (played by Fionn Whitehead) comes upon the beach, which has filled up with thousands and thousands of British Expeditionary Force fighting men. The Germans are closing in. The young man, our introduction to this place, spies an opportunity for rescue, grabbing a stretcher along with another, nearly mute soldier (Aneurin Barnard) and joining an increasingly desperate fray awaiting naval rescue.
What little exposition "Dunkirk" contains is meted out by Kenneth Branagh's imposing naval commander and James D'Arcy's army colonel, as they eye the skies for the enemy and the air support that will not come.
Story two, "The Sea," takes place in a single day, in its own time signature. This features the superb Mark Rylance as one of the civilian English sailors diving into the rescue effort, by way of a pleasure craft called Moonstone, along with his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a local boy eager to take part in something big (Barry Keoghan, wonderfully cast).
En route these three pick up a stranded survivor (Cillian Murphy) whose ship has been torpedoed. He's a dangerous wreck of a man, and whenever Nolan and editor Lee Smith cut back to this narrative, "Dunkirk" becomes a tightly wound battle of wills, with Rylance's taciturn, noble authority figure, gentle and wise, an embodiment of the Dunkirk spirit.
Story three: "The Air," taking place in a single hour. This is where "Dunkirk" soars, literally, metaphorically and cinematically. Tom Hardy takes the lead here as a Royal Air Force Spitfire pilot, engaged in a dogfight with the German Messerschmitts.
How Nolan and company filmed these sequences is inseparable from why they're effective and frankly gorgeous. Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema filmed "Dunkirk" largely with IMAX cameras, on 65mm film. When our point of view becomes the Spitfire pilot's POV, the paradoxical contrast between a tightly confined space and cameras designed for the most spacious image possible is something to behold.
Plenty of digital effects can be detected, in all three overlapping storylines, but Nolan's an old-school film wonk, in love (I concur) with the texture and supple pictorial qualities of film.
How do these three story strands intertwine, by land, by sea and by air? It hurts to say it, but not easily. This is why "Dunkirk" ends up a worthwhile frustration, buoyed by some genuine mastery.
As powerful and exciting as "Dunkirk" is, at its best, I found the various time strands self-conscious and vexing, and in the context of a fictionalized true story of thousands of lives lost, and hundreds of thousands saved, the structural gimmick feels, well, gimmicky.
Throughout this relatively brief epic (107 minutes), Nolan sets his sights on pure suspense, with one life-or-death escape or predicament piled on whatever's going on over on story track two or three. The movie takes its cue, right or wrong, from Hans Zimmer's outlandishly manipulative musical score, all ticking clocks and industrial clanging, working on the audience's nervous system in the most obvious way. The score's so bad, it's virtually guaranteed an Academy Award nomination, and after a while you may find yourself thinking: Where's my white flag?
War is hell, and "Dunkirk" focuses relentlessly on raw survival. For every honest moment of suspense that grinds the audience's guts without getting too cheap about it, there's another that feels like piling on and cramming too much calamity, without enough modulation, inside a story structure that needlessly calls attention to itself.
The later sequences following three young British soldiers (a supporting character is played by pop phenom Harry Styles of One Direction) aren't quite there as written. But then Nolan reminds us of just how good he can be with simple, vividly wrought lines of action. Up in the air, Nolan's clear admiration of silent film, and the capabilities of an IMAX camera using analog film stock, finds its most persuasive outlet.
Nobody's going to go to "Dunkirk" for the performances (though the Rylance-led storyline is dominated more plainly by the actors), or for the writing (Nolan has a penchant for movie-sounding cliches, especially when the talk turns to home, with the word itself becoming a leitmotif). They're going for the visceral impact of a big filmmaker's ambitious vision. Here flying (i.e., writing) solo, Nolan is once again drawn to narrative labyrinths, as he has been from "Memento" to "The Prestige" to "Inception" to "Interstellar."
Does Dunkirk, and "Dunkirk," truly benefit from Nolan's puzzle fixation? I don't think so. Many will. This much, certainly, lies above and beyond debate: Compared to the squandered opportunity of the last film shown widely in 70mm, Quentin Tarantino's hidebound "The Hateful Eight," Nolan at least creates some images worth seeing on the biggest screen possible.
3 out of 4 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense war experience and some language)
Running time: 1:47