Dunkirk is An Intense War Experience

Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Dunkirk, is rated PG-13 for “intense war experience and some language.” “Intense war experience?” I puzzled over the meaning of this. Usually the rating would say “intense war violence” or something like that, but “intense war experience” is a phrase I don’t remember seeing in a movie rating before.

But it turns out that it’s a perfect description of the movie. Dunkirk is an extremely intense war experience, and is one of the most harrowing and riveting films I’ve ever seen.

Image: Warner Bros.

The film tells the story of the Dunkirk evacuation, which took place in Dunkirk, France in 1940, early in World War II. 400,000 Allied troops were cut off by the Germans, and were becoming surrounded. The movie wastes little time in establishing this, and we learn early in the movie from a British Naval Commander played by Kenneth Branagh that the large British ships were too big to come in to the beach where the troops were because the water was too shallow, and they didn’t have enough smaller boats to ferry troops to the bigger ships. The soldiers were stuck on the beach, while being strafed and bombed by German fighter planes as the German army drew ever closer. A dire situation, to say the least, until a flotilla of hundreds of civilian boats came to the rescue. They ended up successfully evacuating more than 300,000 of the 400,000 troops.

Nolan’s film of this event is an unconventional war movie. There are no discussions between the troops about their lives away from the war, no scenes of generals in war rooms discussing strategy, most of the characters aren’t named, and there are long stretches with little to no dialogue. And yet, Nolan has made an honest-to-God masterpiece and released it right smack in the middle of summer movie season. You’ve got to admire his chutzpah.

Nolan has a reputation for doing things for real in his movies (like the famous semi-truck flip in The Dark Knight), and this is on full display with Dunkirk. He used real boats, real planes, and thousands of extras. He filmed the movie in Dunkirk, where the actual events took place, and even used some of the actual boats that were used during the evacuation. The sense of realism pervades the film. There is nothing to distract the viewer from the desperate situation these men were in, and everything in the film feels completely genuine.

The film is composed of three interlocking segments, all of which take place over different periods of time. Nolan loves to play with the concept of time in his movies (Memento, Inception, Interstellar etc.) and he does so again here. The first segment is The Mole, which takes place over the course of one week. The word “mole” refers to the long pier stretching into Dunkirk harbor, not to a small creature that burrows around in your yard. The second segment is The Sea, which occurs over the course of one day, and the third is The Air, which transpires over one hour. These three segments intersect at various points during the movie, and Nolan doesn’t hold the viewer’s hand, meaning that it is necessary to pay close attention, since the intersections between the three segments aren’t always spelled out clearly.

I don’t want that to sound like a complaint. I felt like I had a good grasp of what was going on, but there are details that can be missed if you’re not paying enough attention. Nolan respects his audience enough to let them figure things out on their own, and doesn’t bother to spell everything out for them. The three segments take place on land, sea, and air, and together they give the viewer a complete picture of the event from all angles.

Nolan said that he studied silent films to learn how they used details to convey suspense and emotion without relying on dialogue, and there is little dialogue for much of the film. And yet, it’s the most harrowingly intense film I’ve seen all year. It has a brisk running time of 106 minutes, which makes it a solid hour shorter than Nolan’s previous films Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises. It’s the perfect length. Everything in the movie feels important and has a reason for being there. There’s no fat, the movie never drags, it’s straight-up suspense for the entire running time.

In many ways Dunkirk is more of a survival story than a war film, closer to The Grey than Saving Private Ryan. Nolan keeps the Germans off-screen, we never see the enemy directly for the entire movie. It’s also akin to a disaster movie, in which people are menaced by unstoppable forces of nature they are helpless to stop. The Germans may not be seen directly, but their presence is constantly felt. No sound I’ve heard in a movie theater this year has terrified me more than the sound of incoming German fighter planes. I wasn’t breathing for most of the movie, and one scene late in the film was so unbelievably intense that I was close to hyperventilating. If you have a phobia of drowning or are claustrophobic (or both), you seriously might not want to see this movie to avoid having a panic attack. That’s how intense it is.

In addition to Sir Kenneth Branagh, the movie’s cast includes Nolan mainstays Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy, as well as Oscar-winner Mark Rylance. It also features a large cast of mostly unknown actors, several of which are making their big screen debuts. One of these is Harry Styles, member of the boy-band One Direction. This isn’t stunt-casting, though. Nolan was unaware that Styles that was already famous when he cast in the film. Nolan cast Styles because he felt Styles was right for the role he cast him in. And while I’m not a One Direction fan, Styles is good in the film, as are all the other actors. There’s nothing flashy about any of the people in this movie, they’re all normal people thrust into an impossible, desperate situation. It’s a very human story, and the film never loses track of the humanity of those involved. They’re scared and vulnerable, and we care about them despite knowing little about them.

Image: Warner Bros.

The movie looks amazing. The real planes and ships Nolan used make the film feel incredibly authentic, so much so that it doesn’t feel like you’re watching a movie most of the time. The aerial photography during the dogfight scenes is stunning to watch. Much of the movie was filmed using IMAX cameras, and the results are breathtaking. Christopher Nolan is one of the best directors working today, and his talents are on full display with Dunkirk. If this movie doesn’t finally earn Nolan his long-deserved first Oscar for Best Director, as well as a whole host of other awards, I’ll eat my hat. The score from frequent Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer is also excellent, and helps ratchet up the already considerable tension to nearly unbearable levels.

Dunkirk is not a mindless summer movie. Christopher Nolan doesn’t make those. It’s a challenging film that requires a certain degree of patience, and it’s not a movie that I would call “fun,” but it is a damn good movie nonetheless, easily one of the best of the year, and it is a movie that holds many rewards for the attentive viewer. It is indeed an intense war experience, and will stay with you long after you see it. It’s a visceral, terrifying film, and I can’t wait to see it again.

Next on the Summer Movie Watchlist is Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron as a professional badass, and directed by John Wick co-director and veteran stuntman David Leitch. Will she be Jane Wick, or perhaps Jane Bond? Tune in next week to find out!

Capsule Reviews, Vol. 2

Fury

David Ayer’s 2014 film Sabotage was my least favorite film I saw that year. Grotesquely violent, with an absurd plot and horrendously unlikable characters, not only was it my least favorite film of 2014, it is to this day one of my least favorite films of all time.

Fortunately, Ayer rebounded in 2014 with Fury, a vivid World War II epic starring Brad Pitt. In the film, Pitt plays a tank commander known to his men as Wardaddy. His crew includes driver Gordo (Michael Pena), mechanic Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal), and gunner Bible (Shia LaBeouf). Yes, Shia LaBeouf is in this movie, but it’s easily one of his best performances, and his presence doesn’t hurt the movie at all.

Fury takes place near the end of the war. Wardaddy and his crew, and the rest of the Allied soldiers, desperately want the war to end so they can go home, and they don’t understand why they keep encountering such fanatical resistance the further they push into Germany. There’s an air of desperation that hangs over the film: the soldiers are tired of fighting and want more than anything to go home, but they can’t.

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Wardaddy and his crew have recently lost their backup gunner, and his replacement is green as grass. Logan Lerman plays a young soldier named Norman, who was trained as a typist and now finds himself thrust into a situation beyond his imagining. Wardaddy and his crew are hard on him to say the least, and a scene where Wardaddy forces Norman to kill a captured German soldier is one of many scenes in the film that are difficult to watch.

Fury is a brutal film, and some of the images it presents are hard to shake off: a soldier burning to death shooting himself in the head, a corpse pummeled so deeply into the mud by tank treads that it’s hardly recognizable as human.

Wardaddy and his crew seem at times like cruel men, but are they really? Or are they willing to do whatever it takes to survive? They’ve been together a long time, and Wardaddy has promised his men that they’ll get through this, and he’ll do whatever it takes to keep them alive. If that includes forcing Norman to kill a captured soldier in order to demonstrate the importance of survival, then so be it.

The battle scenes in the film are vivid and intense. The tank battles are unlike other battle scenes I’ve seen in war films. The tanks use tracer rounds so they can more easily see where they’re shooting, and the tracers almost look like laser beams. I can’t think of another war movie that uses tracer rounds during the battle scenes like this one does, and the effect it produces is very unique.

One issue people seem to have had with this movie is that the characters aren’t very interesting. There is little background given to Wardaddy and his crew, and the characters seem like archetypes. I suppose this is true, but it doesn’t bother me. The film is about who these men are now, not who they used to be.

For me, the biggest problem with the movie isn’t the characterization, it’s what I am going to refer to as the Fraulein scene. About halfway through the movie, Wardaddy and his crew come across a couple of young German women in a house. What results is a long, puzzling scene with no apparent purpose. Don’t worry, the tank crew doesn’t abuse the women, but aside from Norman and Wardaddy, they’re not very nice to them either.

I just can’t figure out why this scene is in the movie. The last time I watched it, I skipped the scene entirely and didn’t feel like I had missed anything. The whole scene lasts nearly twenty solid minutes, it just goes on and on and on, it kills the film’s pacing and adds nothing to the story. It ends up feeling self-indulgent on the director’s part, like Ayer thought he was making some grand point about human nature or something, but the whole scene is so overlong and frankly boring that the viewer can’t wait for it to be over.

I still like this movie a lot, despite its flaws. The final battle is heart-pounding. Wardaddy and the crew end up hitting a land mine which disables their tank, and they decide to stay and fight when they realize a German SS battalion is approaching. Ayer is a good action director, and the final battle is well-directed, as are the rest of the movie’s battle scenes. Ayer has a good sense of spatial awareness, leaving the viewer able to follow what is going on during noisy and complex action sequences.

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Fury is a movie full of misery and suffering, but unlike Ayer’s Sabotage, the misery and suffering feel like they serve a purpose. Fury is not a perfect film and may not be remembered as a classic on the same level as, say, Saving Private Ryan, but it is very good and well worth seeing for fans of war films.

London Has Fallen

London Has Fallen is the sequel to Olympus Has Fallen, and the title pretty much says it all. Terrorists attack London while world leaders are gathered there for the British Prime Minister’s funeral, and much mayhem ensues.

It’s been a rough year for the Brits, and I’m not just talking about the whole Brexit thing, or the English soccer team’s recent defeat by Podunk Iceland. It’s been a rough year cinematically for the Brits as well, since London has been thoroughly trashed in two Hollywood movies, this one and Independence Day: Resurgence. Many London landmarks are blown to smithereens, and the overall body count is high.

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As with many sequels, this one didn’t need to be made, but it’s reasonably entertaining and contains some well-executed action. Gerard Butler is never going to win any Academy Awards for his acting, but he’s believable as an unstoppable terrorist-killing badass. Although he does deserve some kind of award for managing to say the line “Go back to F*ckheadistan or wherever you came from” with a straight face.

I am still of the opinion that Aaron Eckhart is a perfect choice for a movie president, and he would probably make a better real president than the current frontrunners. Hell, maybe I’ll vote for him as a write-in candidate. London Has Fallen is a fun but forgettable action flick, and it’s hard to see any more movies for these characters in the future. That doesn’t mean Hollywood won’t try, but still.