Saturday, July 22, 2017

Dunkirk: Saving 400,000 Private Ryans

Lately, Christopher Nolan has become a very polarizing director. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me, but typically what people do is when someone becomes very popular for their great work, people decide that the person is no longer great in order to not fit the status quo. Everyone loved Inception. Everyone. Yet, now, most people consider it overrated or they claim they never really liked it in the first place. But just take a look at his track record. Christopher Nolan transcends genre. He took a simple comic book character and turned it into a Heat-esque crime drama. Whether you love him or hate him as a director, you have to respect that his visions for films are truly remarkable. I think this division began at Interstellar. Nolan inserted some truly ridiculous philosophical ramblings and crammed his head just a little bit too far up his own ass for his own good and this didn't exactly sit well with viewers who weren't super fans. I was a fan of Interstellar when I first saw it, but I didn't love it. Dunkirk, however, I fell in love with instantly. This may be his best film to date, or if not best, his most matured as a director.

Dunkirk tells the story of 400,000 French and British soldiers in WWII stranded on a beach surrounded by the German army, trying to get home, and the hundreds of civilian sailors who came to their rescue. The movie is told from three perspectives: the land, the air, and the sea. On land we follow Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a scared and alone British soldier helping the wounded and trying to find a way off the beach. In the air we follow two allied pilots (one of them played by Tom Hardy) heading toward the beach to ward off attacks from German planes. Finally, at sea, we follow a civilian, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his kids, and a stranded soldier (Cillian Murphy) headed to the beach of Dunkirk to save as many soldiers as he can fit on his tiny boat.

Before seeing the movie, once I found out that the film was only an hour and forty-six minutes, that there was hardly any dialogue in the film, and that it was rated PG-13... some tiny, little red flags went up for me. Then I remembered how I felt way back in the day when Nolan announced that Heath Ledger was playing The Joker and how upset I (and, be honest with yourself, everyone) was that some pretty boy "actor" was stealing a role made famous by the great Jack Nicholson. Then, of course, we all saw the movie and realized that not just Heath, but Nolan was a genius. None of us could've predicted a performance so iconic. In Nolan we trust. So, when I read up on these red flags, who other than Chris Nolan himself, gave up explanations. As far as the PG-13 rating, he revealed that this isn't your typical war movie. It isn't Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge. There aren't intense epic war sequences. There are battle sequences, but no war sequences. This is a movie about survival set during wartime, not a war movie. Okay... that seems reasonable enough. But, what about a lack of dialogue? According to Nolan, the lack of dialogue was because he wanted to visually thrill the audience. Apparently, he studied numerous silent films in order to learn how to create suspense through details, rather than dialogue. Finally, the length of the movie. You go to see a movie set in WWII, you're pretty much under the assumption you're going to be there a good 1/3rd of your day. Yet, this is Nolan's shortest theatrical film, what gives? Nolan revealed (and I'm paraphrasing of course) that he wanted the movie to be as tense as possible from beginning to end. He doesn't want the audience a second to catch their breath. He wanted to create a film that begins with you on the edge of your seat and doesn't stop thrilling you until the credits rolled. To be completely successful, he isn't going to be able to do this for two and a half hours. His script for Dunkirk was a tight 76 pages. And he achieves his goal. It's the perfect amount of thrills and suspense because the film is at the perfect length.

I bring all of this up because Nolan's vision is unparalleled. He sets out to do something and not only does it, but does it better than most people. We all have a vision of how we want something to go or what we want something to look like when we're doing a project, and rarely does it become exactly what we want. Nolan does it better. Dunkirk is exactly what he wanted it to be. It's a fantastic film and one that is probably going to age better than most war movies. We're given a film with hardly any dialogue at all, especially with scenes involving Tommy and the beach. He's a near silent character and yet... we care about him. Nolan doesn't give us any long speeches about backstory and who these characters are internally and what haunted pasts they have... no... they're scared young men desperately trying to get home. Or they're frightened civilians just trying to do their human duty and save lives before losing their own. These are very human characters and we don't need them to tell us that they are. We understand it.

If you have the means, I implore you to see this movie in IMAX. Whether you loved or hated Interstellar, you can't argue that it wasn't visually beautiful. Somehow Nolan has upped his game with Dunkirk. Simply using shots of the actual sky or the actual ocean or the actual beach... it's like nature has bends to the will of Nolan. He goes out there and finds the most breathtaking shot possible... and then does it again and again and again (practically, too) to produce a movie with a setting we've all seen before... in a way we've never seen it before. The cinematography, the movement of the camera swiping side to side from the point of a view of a fighter plane or swishing back and forth, choppy, like the rough waters of a boat, or calm and still like the beach... all of these keep the tension high, and add to the glory of the film. It will be beautiful in any format, but this is one of those very few films that was intended to be seen in IMAX and worth the $20 admission fee.

Finally, the last great thing about Nolan as a filmmaker is his relationship with Hans Zimmer. Zimmer has scored nearly every Nolan movie and if you've seen one, you know that the music is just as much of a character in the film as the actual actors. Here, Zimmer uses the sound of a pocket watch to contribute to the intensity of the film and the very little time these men have left. It's so beautifully crafted, you'll find your own heart beating in rhythm with the ticks of the watch... especially when it speeds up for maximum suspense. Dunkirk is a very understated movie that when reflected back upon feels almost like a quiet success.  However, this is far from true. It's a movie that will visually stun you while you try to find a way to breathe. Nolan is a very accomplished filmmaker, but in Dunkirk he has found his most unique voice yet. I think I'll always consider The Dark Knight to be his best film, but this one certainly knocks the rest of his filmography into the water. It's absolutely fantastic.


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