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A perspective on Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk

Having been a fan of Christopher Nolan films since I saw Memento in 2000, I eagerly anticipated Dunkirk.  We've seen nine of his films, from his great ones--Inception, The Prestige--to his near misses--Interstellar--from comic book heroes--the Dark Knight trilogy--to tarnished heroes--Insomnia--his films are always beautiful, intense, and usually mind-bending experiences.  Our regular movie group saw Dunkirk on IMAX cinema last week, that rare occasion we got the whole gang together (Serfing Dude; Don Swedanya; Ambrose Wolfinger, Ph.D.; Prof. Quincy Wagstaff; Captain Lou Albano, HE; Guy S. Malone, Researcher; even two special guests, the Kreidenheimer Twins, showed up).  All of us were psyched, and, as usual, we commiserated afterward over Black Cows and Ginger Ale.  Guy and I like to hear our friends' thoughts because they season our own impressions as they marinate in our minds before submitting them for your approval.  None of us felt it was the "Best movie of the year" as so many have already crowned it.  Still, all thought it was very good, unique film.

It's important to emphasize the term unique as the prime descriptor for Dunkirk because it is not the standard war movie we've grown up on: not the brooding antiwar films we know so well, and certainly not the John Wayne gung ho type (almost a genre unto itself) of an even older generation.  And, although its immersive effects and visceral impact are reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge, those films are still representative of that old paradigm of what a war film ought to be.  Christopher Nolan's film is far removed from them.  Dunkirk is unique even among the true originals, like Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, although it remains to be seen whether or not Dunkirk will take its place among those all-time classics.

Dunkirk is a war film done as a work of impressionism.  The canvas is Dunkirk and its beach, the Strait of Dover, and, just beyond the horizon, the shores of England.  Soldiers on the beach wait to be ferried away from the clenching claws of the German army on land, U-Boats at sea, and Messerschmitts in the air.  Five representative characters emerge: 1) Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) represents the officer upon whom we depend for our bearings--our context and perspective;  2) Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) represents the civilian flotilla dispatched to carry out the massive evacuation effort; 3) Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy), who shows the emotional costs of the men (and also hints to us of Nolan's warped timeline); 4) Farrier (Tom Hardy) a Spitfire pilot whose sense of duty compels him to place himself in the same mortal peril as the men on the beach; 5) most importantly, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), one of the soldiers on the beach.  [Point of information: "Tommy" was a catchall term for any British soldier in WWII, and Nolan purposefully picked an unknown actor and then cast as many generic look-alikes to show that there were over 300,000 "Tommies" on the beach that day.]  Nolan then shifts from character to character in frenetic splashes, shifting not only in place but also in time (one of the auteur's favorite game pieces).  What results is a chaotic swirl whose sense and sequence only become clear as Hans Zimmer's ticking-clock score hurtles us toward the conclusion of the lean 106-minute film.

Because of Nolan's writing and filming decisions, we have the feeling there will be much revisionist thought on Dunkirk before the Acadamy Awards air next winter.  After all, paradigms do not easily shift--especially a paradigm so firmly entrenched in the collective American consciousness as the war movie.  To illustrate, a friend sent me a writer's perspective on Dunkirk from a respected periodical.  While paying lip service what Nolan was going for, the writer showed that he didn't understand it at all.  He would have preferred Nolan's film plus a documentary that detailed British, French, and German troop movements plus rally-round-the-flag motivational speeches to stir the emotions. That movie would have made The Longest Day seem like an evening news sound bite in comparative duration.

As to its promise for awards, Dunkirk will be a rare bird.  Its minimalist dialogue and presentation of Everyman warriors will probably preclude Screenplay or Acting nominations: it's unusual for an Oscar favorite to miss out on those categories.  And make no mistake, it will be among the favorites for end-of-year awards.  Nolan himself should receive strong consideration for Best Picture and Director.  In other major categories, we can expect recognition for Hoyte van Hoytema's Cinematography, Lee Smith's Editing, and Zimmer's Original Score.  Throw in a couple secondary categories, and Dunkirk is in line for up to seven nominations.
8.5 out of 10 on the Entertainment Scale
9.0 out of 10 on an Awards Scale (see last paragraph above)


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