Relentless, by Bob Connally

22 Jul

More than 70 years after its conclusion, films set during World War II are still produced by the handful year after year. Some are good, some are not, but it’s not often even amongst the good ones that a World War II movie truly sets itself apart from a filmmaking perspective. Christopher Nolan however has been setting himself apart as a filmmaker for the better part of two decades. With Dunkirk he has made his first war movie and it is an astonishing feat. Even more than that, it may be his best film yet.

In May of 1940, the Allied forces have found themselves stranded on the beach at Dunkirk, France, under siege on all sides by the Germans. Some 400,000 British troops are hoping and praying for a rescue that may never come. All they can do now is wait and try to survive.

Narratively, Dunkirk is split into three parts, on the land (spanning one week), on the sea (covering a single day), and in the air (spanning just an hour). Each segment intercuts with the others, following a limited number of characters whom we learn little to nothing about, but this is a rare case where that lack of character development is to the movie’s benefit. What is of paramount importance here is not where these men come from or what they are hoping to get home to, it’s simply getting off that beach alive that matters. Nolan’s aim is to get us as close as a movie can to putting us into the mindset of those men.

There was quite a bit of talk over the past several months about Dunkirk’s PG-13 rating as some people thought that this was somehow going to be a sanitized war film. Since the mid-‘90s with Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan mainstream audiences have come to accept unflinchingly graphic violence in their war movies. Showing the horrific bloody realities of war is one way to pay the proper respect due to those who have died as well as those who survived, but there are other ways of doing that than what we have become accustomed to in recent years. Dunkirk is not a throwback to war movies past but a film that makes us feel the terror of anticipation and the frightening confusion that comes from suddenly being shot at and not knowing where those shots are coming from. While the film is relatively bloodless, the horror of battle is ever present as men are blown away by the dozens by German planes or they drown trying to escape a sinking ship.

With its lean running time of just 106 minutes (short for both Nolan and the average World War II movie these days), Dunkirk is unrelenting in its intensity. Nolan doesn’t break things up with scenes of young soldiers talking about their lives before the war or a man looking at a picture of his wife and child back home. Even getting aboard a ship and eating a small bit of food is hardly a break as Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead) looks for the quickest exit in case of another German attack, which feels inevitable.

When attacks do come in this movie Nolan is able to capture the chaos and terror without shaky cam- which would probably cause headaches at 70mm IMAX screenings- which is a welcome change from so many action sequences of recent years. He and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Nolan’s own Interstellar) present some of the more stunning imagery seen on movie screens- in war movies or otherwise- in a long time. The aerial sequences involving RAF pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) trying to shoot down the German planes attacking the men on the beach are extraordinary. The sky isn’t full of planes in a highly choreographed high speed dogfight. Instead we see fewer planes presented with a grander scope and a sharper focus, with a great many of the shots coming from inside of cockpits.

Nolan also chooses a more intimate approach to the sea portion of the story as well, focusing on Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) on a small boat that has been drafted into service by the Royal Navy. On just one of hundreds of privately owned boats that would go down in history as the “Little Ships of Dunkirk,” Mr. Dawson and his two teenage crewmen find a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) who has survived a U-Boat attack, bringing him aboard in his utterly terrified state. In a wonderful touch, many of the Little Ships shown later in the film are the actual boats from the rescue 77 years ago.

Instead of being “epic” in scale and length, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk tells smaller personal stories about British combatants and civilians alike on a massive canvas. The performances are excellent while being low-key. The young newcomers work beautifully with the more recognizable stars such as Hardy, Rylance, and Kenneth Branagh, who plays a commander in the Royal Navy. In one of the more indelible moments in a film full of them, Nolan keeps the camera focused on Branagh’s face as he looks out onto the horizon and in the span of maybe 20 seconds Branagh gives us almost the entire spectrum of human emotion in an understated way and without saying a word.

Nolan does not give the film a sense of victory as the battle was not a victory for the Allies. As one soldier states after the rescue, “All we did was survive,” but he’s told very truthfully, “That’s enough.” What Dunkirk gives us is the sense of triumph in that miraculous survival. The men board trains after arriving safely on land but they know their war isn’t over. This is merely a temporary relief before going back into battle. Filmically, Nolan echoes the words of Prime Minister Winston Churchill (who had not even been in office for a full month at that point) after the rescue: “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of victory. Wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance, which should be noted.”

Dunkirk is about how surviving to fight another day was the greatest miracle possible on that beach in France. Ultimately it was that highly unlikely survival would allow Britain and its allies (which would not include the United States for another year and a half) to achieve victory over the Axis powers.

This is a film that absolutely must be seen on the big screen, preferably in 70mm if there is a presentation playing near you. No home theater is going to replicate one of the more cinematic films made in many years. On every level Dunkirk is something special.

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