By Sea, Land, and Air Dunkirk is Very Good

Christopher Maher: Wow oh wow! Our first three person review. I’m joined again by Conor, who watched It Comes At Night with me, and by Brandon. Hey guys. Hope you got home safe in the rain yesterday after we watched Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.

I’ll come out and say it – I’m not a big Christopher Nolan guy. I feel he’s obsessed with being “clever” to the point that his movies always seem like some idiot showing off. The Prestige is, excluding Bowie, pretty of dumb. The Dark Knight, while a pretty good movie, has muddy action and bizarre structuring. Inception is a decent action movie, but it didn’t “blow my mind” as lots of my peers told me it would (granted, we were in high school at the time). I absolutely refuse to see Interstellar.

All that said, I was excited to see Dunkirk. I think Nolan is a shit writer but I think he’s a good filmmaker, and a film about a historical evacuation seemed like a movie that’d play to all of his strengths and preclude him from indulging his weaknesses. Set on the beach of Dunkirk and the water of the English Channel, the film follows the famous evacuation of British troops as the Germans close in. A largely nameless ensemble cast (a good Kenneth Branagh, an always great Tom Hardy) brings the story to life, focusing on The Mole, The Water, and The Air. There’s still a little Nolan “cleverness” as the story unfolds over one week (The Mole), one day (The Water) and one hour (The Air), but it’s actually vaguely interesting this time, especially when we begin to see events multiple times from different perspectives.

War movies are primarily man v. “nature”, and Nolan does this well with Dunkirk twice over. The Germans are closing in from all sides – Nolan smartly never shows them, instead leaving them a faceless threat, reinforcing their elemental power. The people on the beach have literally no ability to stop them: the best they can do is survive. But Dunkirk offers a second force of nature, equally ethereal but rarely discussed in war movies: cost. The simple fact is the Germans aren’t stopping at Dunkirk. They have every intention of crossing the English Channel. Any resource lost in the evacuation is a resource that can no longer be used in the defense of England. It’s brutal, but it’s true, and it makes for a compelling unseen enemy (with good motivation! Take that, Marvel).

What’d you guys think? Did you like the structure? How bout those visuals and sounds?

Brandon Woodruff: Howdy ho’ Chris. Big fan. Long time reader. First time poster.

I’ll start off by sharing my two cents on Christopher Nolan as well, cause why not? I always thought one of the biggest problems with a Nolan film was how he relied on the mind bending twist, structure, or overall concept of his films as a sort of crutch to make up for his basic characters, bad dialogue, and poorly staged action.

However, in Dunkirk he really manages to overcome all of this. He doesn’t dive into the psyche of his characters too much, but this is a movie about survival and all of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers on that beach and on those boats all have the same motivation. Unlike some of his earlier films that pack in a lot of overly complicated sci-fi material like Interstellar or Inception, there’s no wasted time with expository dialogue. Not much needs to be explained to the audience in that sense. It is a really beautifully simple movie for Nolan, and in that simplicity he can really thrive as a filmmaker.

This film also stands apart from the rest of his work along with Interstellar because of the cinematography. After Wally Pfister stopped working as Nolan’s Cinematographer after The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan’s films became a lot more interesting to watch. Before this change I think his films lacked a sort of visual character or individuality that other established filmmakers like him always had in their films from the beginning. In films such as The Dark Knight or The Prestige, most of the coverage is shot in singles, the action is blocky and extremely hard to follow, and it is difficult to pick out a recognizable or defining color palette throughout the film.  

While not all of the problems can be placed on Pfister alone, you do really see a complete 180 when Hoyte Van Hoytema (Her, Spectre, TInker Tailor Soldier Spy) began working with Nolan as his director of photography. In Dunkirk, the palette of desaturated grays, blues, browns is all encompassing and really makes you feel lost in the masses of soldiers on the beach. His frames are always very active with movement in the background and foreground. All of Hoytema’s strengths combined with Nolan’s need for these larger than life shots of all of the soldiers on the beach as well as the beautiful yet sometimes terrifying aerial photography lead to a really extraordinary film to watch.

I could go on for a while on the visual element of this film alone and I haven’t even gone into how the film was shot on 70mm yet so I feel like this is an appropriate place for someone else to take the reins.

Conor Bell: This is the first Christopher Nolan film I’ve seen in awhile that I liked about as much as everyone. I think what tends to happen with his films is they get a lot of hype behind them, people talk them up as if they’re going to be these big important blockbusters, but then they always just turn out to be decent movies that bite off a bit more than they can chew.

Which I think is an issue found in his writing. As his movies have gotten bigger so have the ambitions of his stories, which is fine, but they get a bit convoluted or indulgent. And piggybacking off Chris, I do get the sense Nolan is trying to wow me with how smart or clever he is. It’s like the Fight Club Syndrome, right? You have a high concept thing that appeals to people who like “high concept” stuff and it’s really cool, but beneath that it’s pretty average. Christopher Nolan works best when the stories are simple, Memento being the best example of that. And here he’s going back to that. A lot of the story is just very basic things: soldiers need to leave the beach, civilians need to pick up soldiers, and planes need to shoot other planes. These are all segmented into “chapters” and at the beginning of each we get an ambiguous sort of timeframe. When these plots overlap it’s pretty cool because you get to see the same event but from a different point of view. For example when one of the pilot waves to his buddy who just crash landed in the ocean and his friend waves back we later see that his friend was actually trapped in the cockpit and waving for help. That structure worked well in opening up a very small event into one of the most tense scenes in the film. However, I can’t think of many other events where that happens, which makes me ask “what’s the point of all the different times other than a cool way to play with structure?”

The best part of the story was how vague all the characters were, or not vague, but I don’t have another word at the moment. They were all built around the “tip of the iceberg” model where you don’t get a lot of information about them, but you assume there is and that’s really enough. I don’t need to know about the Harry Styles character’s backstory because all I really care about is watching him try not to drown. That was the whole movie basically. It was just watching a person doing something, maybe a little exposition here or there, but not much more information was given. Which I love. Not enough movies trust their audience enough. But when they do it allows us to use our imagination a bit more. We can project onto them better than if they’re already filled out. It also allows the psychology of the characters to come through in their behavior rather than their words. Basically it’s a “show, don’t tell” kind of plot.

The acting was great. The performances across the board were very grounded and honest. There was a lot of listening, a lot of giving, and when the plot is so clear it was definitely easier for the actors to follow through on their objectives. I don’t remember noticing any tension in the actors or hearing a lot of “disbelief” (basically if a line reading sounds weird, like too big or too small, it probably means the actor isn’t giving in to the character). This is an ensemble film and so it’s really important that nobody sticks out too much. With performers like Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, and Mark Rylance in the mix that can be difficult because they’re so great. But there was no scene stealing and all of the actors were quite generous with one another.

CM: Technically I think Dunkirk was a real victory, as Brandon said. It’s action isn’t muddy at all and the aerial battles in particular are heart pounding – they are fast, concise, and create a real feel. I wouldn’t say they’re never confusing, because they are occasionally, but purposely so – the British planes are outnumbered and (again with the theme of the enemy of “cost and time”) chasing one plane sometimes means another plane can get behind you, and you have to pick. The constant roar of the motor contrasted with the shocking and terrifying rat-a-tat of bullets from nowhere (the bullets are often loud and jarring, keeping with the other “force of nature” threat: the unseen Germans). There were multiple times I jumped while watching this movie due to powerful sound design, and it was never cheap: the characters were shocked too.

Finally, I want to address Conor’s point about the ensemble cast. I said most war films end up being man v. nature, but I think maybe Dunkirk lands somewhere else. With it’s nameless ensemble cast taking to the land, water, and skies it becomes almost a nature v. nature story. What is the answer to forces we can’t beat? Forces (not individuals) doing good. Or being properly “British”, with a stiff upper lip and a dedication to duty, as many of the older characters are.

Dunkirk is a departure from Christopher Nolan’s work because it is not just pretending to be good, but is actually good. I give Dunkirk 9.5 Tom Hardy grunts out of 10.

OTHER THOUGHTS

  • Probably an Oscar contender, right?
  • Along with the color palette Brandon mentioned, there was some cool blinding sunlight in scenes in the air near water.
  • The reason I knocked .5 Tom Hardy grunts off is that there is one weird story beat that is pretty obviously engineered for pathos and tragedy. I think if you see the movie you’ll know the one.

Conor Bell, when asked for a bio, had this to say: I don’t have a website yet and I’m ashamed of my instagram. But my name is Conor Bell, I’m an actor, and one day you will fear me. Peep me on IMDb 😉

Brandon Woodruff‘s work can be found here.

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4 thoughts on “By Sea, Land, and Air Dunkirk is Very Good

  1. I loved this film, and completely agree about the theme of cost. The fact that this movie never glorifies war constitutes another amazing feat. In each and every character we see and feel what the word “shellshocked” really means. It’s not about bravery or cowardice, but about what happens to humans when they are completely powerless and must wait. In our modern age, we hear a lot about the sacrifices of those who have come before us. Perhaps for the very first time I had a visceral understanding of the cost of my “way of life,” and the price paid by those who have gone before. I walked out of the theater with an overwhelming sense of gratitude that somehow sat side-by-side with helplessness and despair.

    Like

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