August 11, 2017 at 3:35 pm PDT | by John Paul King
Hope and despair in wartime

Brian D’Arcy (left) and Kenneth Branagh in ‘Dunkirk.’ (Photo courtesy Warner Brothers)

Christopher Nolan may be one of the most prominent modern filmmakers, but he is surprisingly old fashioned.

Consider his newest film, the highly anticipated WWII drama, “Dunkirk.”  In tackling a war movie (one of the oldest cinematic genres imaginable), he relies mostly on tricks of the trade established since the silent era, eschewing dialogue in favor of visual storytelling and favoring practical effects over computerized ones.

He continues to champion the use of film over digital cinematography.  “Dunkirk” is one of the rare contemporary films to be shot on widescreen film stock and presented in 70 MM format, delivering an experience that feels like one of those classic big screen extravaganzas of old.

Despite his tried-and-true approach, though, Nolan also brings his own contemporary perspective to the mix; this combination results in not only the most immersive, visually impressive war film in recent memory, but also the most thoughtful and challenging.

For those who need a brief history lesson, Dunkirk is a town on the French coast of the English Channel where hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers were trapped in the summer of 1940. Surrounded by Nazi forces, these combined English, French, and Belgian troops awaited evacuation on the beach while being pummeled from air and sea.  Nolan’s film tells the story of their miraculous rescue from this dire situation.

Challenged with the task of capturing such an epic event in a way that brings it to his audience as concisely as possible, Nolan has chosen to split his movie into three interwoven stories.

In one, we follow a young English soldier on the beach as he struggles to survive; in another, a civilian boat captain answers the call for private vessels to assist in the evacuation and sets sail across the Channel with his son and a young deckhand; and in the third, British fighter pilots attempt to fend off attacks against the rescue ships and stranded troops by engaging Nazi planes in dogfights above the beach.

Through these separate plotlines, Nolan raises the individual stakes within each story while building the tension that drives the larger narrative, providing a cumulative payoff when they finally come together for the climactic sequence they all share.

It’s this structure where Nolan most notably breaks from traditional style.

Although the interwoven narrative is not, in itself, an unusual device, the director adds an extra layer by playing tricks with the passage of time. The result is a disorientation which contributes to the overall sense of being in the midst of battle.  It’s a challenging conceit, and although Nolan plainly sets up the rules early in the film, some viewers are bound to find it confusing.

Like any “auteur” filmmaker, Nolan’s entire of body of work explores recurring themes and repeated elements which make them distinctly and unmistakably his own.  He has always been preoccupied with time in his movies, so it’s no surprise that he brings this obsession into “Dunkirk.”

If one doesn’t like Nolan’s trademark blend of mind-bending narrative style and coldly philosophical thematic underpinnings, one is likely to find all of his movies unsatisfying.  For that reason, “Dunkirk” will almost certainly frustrate those who are unimpressed with its director’s creative quirks.

For those who appreciate Nolan’s vision, “Dunkirk” is a truly magnificent film – possibly his best work to date – which embraces the form of the traditional war picture while simultaneously re-inventing it.  It’s full of tropes, but the complexity with which Nolan infuses them makes them feel fresh, allowing him to use them as comfortable touchstones as he takes us on an intense journey through the harrowing and hellish landscape of war.

That journey would certainly not be possible without the sheer scope and size of his imagery (captured by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema); but equally important is Hans Zimmer’s remarkable electronic score, which blends the thundering, sternum-shaking noises of combat so seamlessly into the ever-ascending music that it creates a kind of aural cocoon in which inner and outer realities merge.  This, combined with the expert editing by Lee Smith, allows Nolan to deliver a movie which avoids overt manipulation and sentimentality yet offers sublime moments of accumulated empathy that may require a tissue or two from some viewers.

As for the cast, it’s a true ensemble, in which established stars (Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy) serve side by side with lesser-known faces.  The entire company deserves equal praise, but for reasons of space I will limit myself to singling out One Direction’s Harry Styles, in his first screen role as one of the soldiers awaiting rescue, who belies any notion of stunt-casting with an ego-free performance that stands on its own merit alongside those of his on-screen cohorts.

“Dunkirk” has received some criticism for its lack of diversity. While the majority of personnel involved in the real-life evacuation were undoubtedly white men, there were also men of color on that beach, none of whom appear onscreen.  In addition, though the film does feature a few fleeting glimpses of women, they are more or less relegated to the background. It’s necessary to take note of such oversights as part of the important ongoing conversation about “whitewashing” in the film industry.

Still, in terms of judging the film for what it shows us (and not what it doesn’t), “Dunkirk” is powerful cinematic art. Though not overtly an “anti-war” film, it shows us the chaos of war alongside both the best and worst of what it brings out in humanity, without sentimentality or judgment.

That alone makes “Dunkirk” a profoundly suitable war movie for these troubled times.

DUNKIRK (Warner Brothers, Syncopy Productions)
Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan
Now playing at Arclight Cinemas (Hollywood and Sherman Oaks), TLC Chinese Theater, AMC Universal Citywalk, AMC Century City, Vintage Vista Theater, others.

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