Thursday, July 20, 2017

Movie review: Christopher Nolan guns for Oscar glory in 'Dunkirk'

Few directors create event cinema quite like Christopher Nolan. For his latest movie “Dunkirk,” the director of "Memento," "Inception" and the "Dark Knight" trilogy crafts a quietly coiled vision of men trapped in war.

At 107 minutes, “Dunkirk” is one of the shortest movies in Nolan’s oeuvre but don’t be fooled. That runtime is more than enough to immerse you in this tone poem of carefully structured, white knuckle tension. Thunderous and triumphant, “Dunkirk” will give you chills as you watch every scene unfold – like a dripfeed of desperation. When it finally ends, you just want to hand Nolan an Oscar.

The miracle of Dunkirk comes straight from the history books: In the early days of World War II, the cream of the British army faced certain defeat after being trapped by the German forces’ advance into northern France in May 1940. Thousands of British soldiers, along with French, Belgian and Canadian troops, were forced back to the beaches of Dunkirk where the shallow water prevented large British naval ships from coming close to rescue the men. It’s a kill-box situation as German dive bombers raised hell on the boats and beaches, unseen snipers fired on the waiting troops and torpedos slammed into vessels. Only a miracle will get these men out alive.

Focusing on three different timelines, Nolan structures this narrative like an ever-tightening vise. There’s a young soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) who is stuck right in the middle of the battle for a week. There’s RAF pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) who takes on the German forces in the sky. And we have a boat captain Dawson (Mark Rylance) who answers the call to join Operation Dynamo and help save the trapped soldiers.

Kenneth Branagh also plays a British naval officer who assesses the dangers faced by his men and raises the call for help. Nolan uses these three characters to frame the narrative but the best trick in his cinematic hat is that these three might not even be the most important in the whole story.

Tommy, our audience surrogate, gets the longest exposure – it is through his eyes that we see and feel the quiet desperation of soldiers trying to escape Dunkirk. Whitehead has minimal dialogue in the film but his actions are enough: this is a movie that shows how trust is forged by small, significant gestures; of simple acts that explain motivations. 

 Also of equal importance is Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), a low ranking soldier whose friendship with Tommy is tested in one tense sequence. Harry Styles of One Direction plays Alex, a British Army private whose basest instincts are exposed by war.

Rylance’s boat captain Dawson is the closest thing to an emotional anchor to the movie, exuding unassuming decency in his drive to save as many soldiers as he can even as he cares for his two wards, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and George (Barry Keoghan).

And then we have Farrier, played by Nolan favorite Tom Hardy. Hardy’s role may be the hardest as he is portrayed inside a cockpit during his near entire time in the movie.

One plus point in every Nolan joint: you get the full immersive experience. It’s a movie of details: seafoam on the beaches, a makeshift breakwater using lined-up military trucks, copper-tinged water due to oil coming out a downed ship. A wordless sequence of soldiers walking a seemingly deserted city while German leaflets drop down like confetti is particularly chilling.

Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack also deserves every accolade – ticking clocks and heartbeats mix together with the thunder of bombs, heightening the confusion of thousands of soldiers on the windswept beaches while German planes scream overhead. And then he goes quiet: the scariest scene – soldiers inside a boat’s hull slowly filling up with water while a sniper shoots at them. At one point, you realize this movie might need a trigger warning – for those with a fear of drowning and confined spaces. 

Nolan also captures the ferocity and scale of the battle. Never is this more evident when he straps his camera on a British plane and films the aerial dogfights right in the sky. It’s a scene that a lesser production would’ve done via CGI; Nolan makes it real by putting you there as Farrier struggles to take down his many enemies dealing death in the air.

History already shows us how the miracle of Dunkirk ended. Strangely though, the ending of “Dunkirk” feels weaker than its set-up – there is no glorious uplift when salvation nears. The import of Dunkirk is not realized by the soldiers who lived through it until much later. There are no grand speeches except one so well-known that it comes through as muted.

Perhaps that is the point of Nolan’s take of this event. It’s a story of sights and sounds, of the uncertainties of conflict and the heroism of small gestures. And that is enough.