Friday, July 21, 2017

Dunkirk: An intense, masterful drama

Dunkirk (2017) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated PG-13, for intense war violence and occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.21.17

Christopher Nolan doesn’t merely spin a crackling good yarn; he tells it in a provocative, wildly imaginative manner.

Thousands of Allied soldiers wait anxiously on the "mole" — a narrow, kilometer-long,
wood-boarded breakwater that pokes precariously out into the cold waters of the
English Channel — while praying they'll be able to board a rescue ship before being
strafed by Luftwaffe Messerschmitts.
His fascination with nonlinear storytelling began with Following and Memento — the latter ingeniously unfolding both forwards and backwards — and ultimately became too much in Inception (a dream within a fantasy within a head trip within a nod to Orson Welles ... quite overcooked, but audacious nonetheless).

Dunkirk does not succumb to such excess, although some viewers may be perplexed by how its three parallel storylines intersect ... until the penny drops, resulting in a richly satisfying — dare I say exhilarating — A-ha! moment.

This film is a masterpiece: a compelling, ingeniously conceived and choreographed slice of suspenseful, nail-biting history transformed into a thoroughly absorbing drama. Everything connects here, starting with the superlative work turned in by a huge ensemble cast composed primarily of unfamiliar faces and a few high-profile character actors.

Nolan both wrote and directed this stunning slice of edge-of-the-seat cinema, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he also came up with the attention-grabbing tag line: “When 400,000 men couldn’t get home ... home came for them.”

Remember being riveted, in 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, by Steven Spielberg’s 20-minute handling of the Normandy Beach landing sequence?

Nolan ups that ante. Dunkirk maintains that level of suspense and peek-between-your-fingers anxiety for its full 106 minutes. You literally dare not blink during his ticking-clock handling of simultaneous narratives that come together brilliantly, in time for a climax that’s no less triumphant, for our prior knowledge of how the story concludes.

The drama comes from the skillfully sketched, ground-level characters, whose fates we most definitely don’t know, history notwithstanding.

This is a snapshot of a seminal event during the early days of World War II: an incident that began with a ghastly military disaster, but concluded with an amazing miracle that demonstrated anew — here’s a lesson worth repeating — how individual civilians absolutely can make a massive, heroic difference.

Nolan doesn’t supply much back-story. Ergo, in the interests of full understanding:

During the spring of 1940, German armies rapidly charged through Belgium, the Netherlands and France, trapping British, French and Belgian troops along the northern coast of France. The Allied troops literally had nowhere to go, backed against the waters of the English Channel. The shallow-drafted beaches and harbor outside Dunkirk made landing impossible for the large British naval ships, and 21-foot tides further exacerbated the situation.

Ferrying men out to deeper water was a painfully slow process, and a dangerous one; the beaches — and anchored ships — were constantly strafed and bombed by the Luftwaffe. The Allied troops could only wait their turn and watch, helplessly, as the German planes were challenged by the plucky pilots navigating the often badly damaged Royal Air Force Spitfires, which could cross the channel and dogfight only for scant minutes, before their limited fuel tanks forced a return trip.

The Allied troops seemed doomed. Until...

Across the channel in England, a scant 26 miles away, folks weren’t about to put up with that. The British navy put out a call, and it was answered; the result was a flotilla of hundreds of fishing boats, pleasure craft and even lifeboats, in many cases piloted by determined civilians.

Nolan depicts what happened — the actual evacuation took place from May 26 through June 4 — with a we-are-there intensity from three viewpoints.

We first meet Tommy (Fionn Whitehead, an impressive big-screen debut), a young soldier who barely survives enemy fire in a neighboring town, before joining the hundreds of thousands of other soldiers on the Dunkirk beaches. He encounters Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), another young soldier; they wordlessly bond through necessity, their subsequent experiences the stuff of nightmares.

Over in England, the stoic, stalwart Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) takes his small yacht — the Moonstone — into the channel, assisted by his 19-year-old son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney). Just as the boat casts off, they’re joined by Peter’s impulsive, 17-year-old friend George (Barry Keoghan). This younger lad views the affair as a larkish adventure, having no sense of what’s happening 26 miles away.

High in the sky, three Spitfires have just taken off for Dunkirk. The senior RAF pilot is Farrier (Tom Hardy), who maintains constant communication with Collins (Jack Lowden) and their third winged colleague. They’re not even halfway across the channel when they encounter a trio of yellow-noised Messerschmitts.

The aerial sequences here — and throughout the film — are stunning. Beyond exciting. Spellbinding to a degree that, frankly, defies my stock of adjectives.

Hoyte Van Hoytema’s aerial cinematography is jaw-dropping, and editor Lee Smith wisely avoids staccato cuts, instead holding on longer takes to give us a cockpit’s-eye sense of the dizzying difficulty pilots had, when trying to line up shots on a target that dances and darts like a huge hummingbird. (You’ll want to see this film on as large a screen as possible.)

Nolan and Smith maintain this level of intensity in all three narratives, the suspense further enhanced by Hans Zimmer’s throbbing, heartbeat-esque score: the music so ubiquitous that it feels like a single lengthy symphony carrying us through the entire film. Zimmer adds to our agitation by using a Shepard scale, which creates the auditory illusion of a tone that continually ascends in pitch, despite never seeming to get any higher: a disorienting and highly effective technique.

Zimmer also augments his score with snatches of Edward Elgar’s soaring “Nimrod,” a stirring anthem often played at British funerals and memorial services. Sound designer/editor Richard King further tweaks the audio palette with engine sounds — always accelerating — and a relentlessly ticking watch.

Although Nolan deserves top marks for orchestrating all of these elements into an immersive cinematic package, he earns — and maintains — our hearts and minds with his story’s compelling characters.

Rylance is the epitome of unflappable British composure, his intelligence and resourcefulness a balm that soothes his younger companions. Once this film makes the rounds, all the posters, mugs and Smart phone cases that bear the iconic British phrase — “Keep calm and carry on” — could just as easily replace those five words with a photo of Rylance’s Mr. Dawson.

Glynn-Carney and Keoghan feel more like 1940s British lads than coached actors. Hardy and Lowden, despite being concealed most of the time behind pilot’s masks, deliver impressive levels of dramatic passion. Lowden, when we do see his face, carries a weight of maturity that we sense, despite his youthful features.

Whitehead, Barnard and Damien Bonnard — as another frightened young solider met on the beach — have the disadvantage of looking quite similar, particularly when drenched by seawater and coated by the debris from nearby bomb blasts. It’s difficult to distinguish them, but that could be deliberate, signifying their status as the countless, nameless young men trying to survive such chaotic circumstances.

Kenneth Branagh is suitably grim-faced as Commander Bolton, the senior naval officer charged with organizing the arrivals and departures of boats and ships. He’s assisted by James D’Arcy, equally persuasive as ranking army officer Col. Winnant. These two men are among the very few, early on, who know of — and pray for — Operation Dynamo.

Cillian Murphy is memorably heartbreaking as the never-named, shell-shocked survivor of a torpedoed ship; he’s rescued by the Moonstone en route to Dunkirk ... and is terrified by the thought of going back to that nightmare.

Dunkirk is a massive endeavor: the sort of splendidly assembled and choreographed endeavor that goes back to Hollywood’s “cast of thousands” origins. It succeeds so well — as drama, history and thrill-a-minute suspense — due to what must have been meticulous planning by Nolan, on a truly astonishing scale.

The result speaks for itself. Dunkirk is one for the ages.

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