Friday, July 21, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Dunkirk (2017)

DUNKIRK (2017), the new film written and directed by Christopher Nolan, is a very good if not wholly successful depiction of the evacuation of the British Army from France in the spring of 1940.

Nolan's film tells three "non-linear" stories set during the evacuation; it took me a while to put together the meaning of the narrative cards "The Mole: 1 Week," "The Sea: 1 Day," and "The Air: 1 Hour" and realize each individual story took place in the indicated time frame.

Thanks to the intercut stories we thus go from nighttime on the beach to a daytime aerial dogfight and then swing back again. Once I understood the narrative format I was fine with it, but it would have been nice if the viewer didn't have to spend time figuring out that the stories were not taking place simultaneously.

On the beach in France young soldiers (including Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, and Harry Styles) struggle to survive endless German strafings as Naval Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Army Colonel Winnant (James D'Arcy of AGENT CARTER) anxiously await destroyers...or better yet, boats which can get close to shore.

In the air, RAF pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) struggle to protect the men on shore from the German planes, while back in England Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) sets out toward Dunkirk in his small pleasure boat, determined to do his duty and help bring men safely home.

Branagh, Hardy, and Rylance in particular give authoritative performances with relatively little time to sketch their characters; we instantly believe and are reassured by each of them. This is particularly remarkable regarding Hardy, as he spends much of the film with a pilot's mask over his face; nonetheless, he conveys a capable confidence while struggling not only with the German planes but with the limitations of his fuel tank and a broken gauge.

I chose to see the film in 70mm, and seeing the film in that size print is definitely the way to go; it's an impressive, immersive experience. I think it's safe to say that my key memories of the film will be not so much the story and actors but the grandeur of the cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema and the score by Hans Zimmer.

Like the 1958 film of the same name, where the film falls short is in fully capturing the sweep and power of the miracle which saved so many thousands of men. There's a marvelous scene where Branagh reacts as he sees the first of the "little ships" heading towards shore, followed by cheers from the soldiers, but the film remains heavily weighted in favor of traumatic battle scenes even as it approaches its conclusion. After all that's gone before, the audience deserves to see more of the heroism and rescues in one of the great stories of WWII.

Five years ago I wrote of the 1958 film, "The movie depicts an endless succession of strafings and bombings of the soldiers on and near the beach, as well as the sinking of boats as they attempt to evacuate some of the men, but the film shows very few successful rescues."

I also wrote of the 1958 film: "I expected to see more of the event's positive stories of success as the film came to an end. I appreciate that the filmmakers wanted to personalize the story by depicting the experiences of a small group of people, but it would have been dramatically effective if the rescue...could have been shown in a greater context. After all the characters' trials and tribulations, the film should have then built to a stirring climax, but instead it falls a bit flat."

Both those statements also apply to the 2017 version. The 2017 version, which runs 106 minutes compared to 1958's 135 minutes, is overall the better film, in terms of production values, pacing, and performances; I also think it's slightly more successful conveying the "miracle of Dunkirk," but only just.

All in all, though it somewhat misses the mark, DUNKIRK is definitely worth seeing, thanks to its impressive visuals and assured acting. I was interested to see that Leonard Maltin had a similar take, as I'm often in tune with his opinions.

Parental Advisory: DUNKIRK is rated PG-13. The violence is intense, but on a non-gory level similar to war films made during WWII.

DUNKIRK is being screened in 70mm in numerous theaters nationwide; it's the biggest 70mm release in a quarter century. I very highly recommend seeing it in this format. A list of 70mm theaters has been posted at Indiewire. I saw it at the Regal Stadium in Long Beach, which also happens to be where our son worked during his college years.

A DUNKIRK trailer is available on YouTube or at the official website.

It's of note that DUNKIRK is one of multiple films released this year set during WWII. I previously reviewed THEIR FINEST (2016) and look forward to seeing Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in DARKEST HOUR (2017) this November.


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