Friday, July 21, 2017

Dunkirk: give it an E for effort

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has been garnering amazing praise, the result, I believe, of the fact critics have become so subsumed by the hype (as I was to an extent) that they have suspended their critical judgement. The closest this film approximates is Steven Spielberg’s 1998 Saving Private Ryan. The movie indeed does put the viewer in the centre of a war zone, and prolongs that over more than an hour and a half, much longer that the immersive scenes of the Spielberg movie. The film begins with no prologue but puts the audience directly into the action, which doesn’t let up. This is good. Also great is the sound score, a cacophony of siren-like sounds and loops of increasing pulsating industrial-like rumble, sometimes sounding like an overwrought industrial engine, which led me to wonder if this was an accurate way to underline the visual drama. As far as the visual is concerned the scenes take place largely on the expansive Dunkirk, France, beach under an overcast if slightly sunny sky, which creates an uncomfortable, menacing atmosphere. The story is about the massive and heroic evacuation of some 400,000 troops pinned in by the Germans, strafed as they are on the beach waiting to be rescued. No large ships can sail into the shallow waters so the British government calls on a vast flotilla of small boat owners to sail the Channel, about 20 nautical miles from England. This is one of the most heroic stories of the Secord World War, at the end of which Winston Churchill’s great speech “We shall never surrender” takes place. The film rotates among three stories – a young soldier (Fionn Whitehead) as part of the perilous evacuation, Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson, one of the citizen skippers sailing to the rescue, and two British air force Spitfire pilots (Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy), providing air cover. Throughout, the action is intense and never lets up. The acting is generally good including newcomer Whitehead and especially Rylance. But here are my problems: The movie indeed was shot in modern day Dunkirk and it shows. The streets are too colourful and pretty. There are even contemporary-looking buildings along the shore. Close-up shots of the pilots in their cockpits obviously aim for the realistic, their masks indeed looking like they came from the period, and that’s a problem. If this was real, wouldn’t their gear be newer looking? Also, visually, for a film that strives for exact realism, we never see the vast flotilla of citizen boats but rather only about 10 or 12. And, back home in England, the interior of the train coaches look newish. And, finally and most importantly, while I appreciate the film’s intensity, it’s simply not dramatic enough. I found myself looking at my watch twice. There are, for example, redundant scenes of ships bombed and turning over and soldiers thrown under water, and of troops gathered aimlessly on the beach. In fact, the film’s main fault, ironically, may be that in trying to be too in the moment for an hour and 46 minutes, it missed the opportunity to build drama. 

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