24 July 2017

Dunkirk (2017)

Reviewers have been so effusive in their praise for Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk that one suspects that something is very wrong here.  Their words are over the top and cliche.

The New York Times, for example, called it a "tour de force", "a brilliant new film",  and "a characteristically complex and condensed vision of a war in a movie that is insistently humanizing, despite its monumentality."  The Guardian called the film "structurally immaculate" and "a jaw-dropping spectacle in which the picture for the most part stretched beyond [the reviewer's] field of vision, both vertically and horizontally."  Vanity Fair, among others, calls the film Nolan's "most artistic, impressionistic film yet."

But the Vanity Fair reviewer gives us a clue that something is amiss with his very first sentence. He describes the challenge of trying to find words to describe this film. "It was a dance piece, then a music video, then a poem, then a prayer."  His words clearly failed him.

After all, these are bizarre ways to describe a movie about the defeat of Britain and France in early 1940 at the hands of an invading German army. In the actual events, Britain only avoided a catastrophe by a combination of muddling, luck, and improvisation. The story of Dunkirk is a spectacle in its own right.  It is spectacular in the wider context of defeat and conquest at the opening phase of the largest war in human history. 

Thematically, Dunkirk is the antithesis to Normandy: retreat in defeat versus attack leading to victory. Dunkirk: improvised. Normandy:  meticulously planned. The one is the prelude to the other.  This is such a potentially rich mine of a story that it is amazing that no one has done more with it before.  And it is such a well-documented story - read Julian Thompson's history, if nothing else - that it is astounding that Nolan has buggered the whole thing rather badly.

There are lots of ways to describe an event such as Dunkirk and indeed lots of ways to present the story.  But dance piece?  Music video? A poem you might buy into but it would be a great insult to Sassoon or Owen to liken their work to Dunkirk's pristine, one-dimensional soldiers, sailors, and pilots.

What becomes plain fairly quickly in these effusively positive reviews is that the reviewers clearly know very little of the actual events or indeed or war movies as a genre. Go read the New York Times review of the one movie made about Dunkirk before now, the one made in 1958. Now look at the reviews of the 2017 movie. The recent ones seem thin. Insubstantial. Lacking in depth either of knowledge or indeed even of morality.  They inadvertently describe the 2017 movie precisely, then. 

Even after that brief experience you should now be retching at the idea war and the events at Dunkirk can be a rendered as a tour de force dance piece or a structurally immaculate music video.  There is nothing deep in Nolan's film. It is a confused mess. 

Nolan lacked an understanding of the events to produce a suitably layered film.  We wind up with a re-imagined war for the people who voted enthusiastically for Brexit, an imaginary Britain of the past without the wogs, frogs, and darkies. This is a film embraced by the political left in the United States but it is unmistakably a movie that white-washes the past in a manner beloved by the political right. 

Nolan seems to have lacked either the budget to be a summer blockbuster with enough people, airplanes, and ships to show the sensual onslaught of the battle itself or the intimate storytelling ability  of a Saving Private Ryan to show its personal tragedy.  A few very loud bangs or inadequately lit images of water bubbles in a torpedoed ship are not a substitute.

Nolan's film comprises three story lines.  Each follows a different time scale (week, day, hour) yet they are supposed to intersect.  For the most part, though, they do not seem to be internally consistent and they certainly do not mesh with each other in an effective way. At one point,  actors on The Mole, which is at the heart of the evacuation, can hear small arms fire from what would seem to be a future set of events in a different time scale. Within the context of the timelines, the rifle and machine gun fire should be so far away from the Mole that the  generic army lieutenant colonel and the generic naval officer should not have seen the spot let alone heard it, even if we ignore the temporal muddle that goes with it.

Kenneth Branagh is wasted as a cut-out of a naval captain who spouts cliche after cliche until the very end of the film when he snaps off a salute as he tells the rest to go on without him. It is all too much stiff upper lip and dewwing doo for a serious film. Indeed, this film falls back on cliche so often - the three Spitfire pilots sacrificing their airplanes and themselves - that one suspects there will be a deleted scene on the Blu-Ray in which some army staff officer points to the Jerry positions he-uh, he-uh, and he-uh, while we are he-uh,  he-uh and he-uh.

Visually, the film offers some intimations of what might have been.  The opening, for example, plunges you immediately into the story in the most intimate way. A section of British soldiers wanders up a deserted French street.  The soldiers gather German propaganda leaflets that drop from a quiet sky.  One crouches by a French house to take a quick shit,  presumably intending to use the leaflets to wipe his backside.  Instead, gunfire erupts and the soldiers drop one by one until the last, unnamed fellow hops over first a fence and then a wall before getting through a French barricade.

He winds up on the beach, where he takes the delayed dump next to another generic soldier who is burying a body.  After that, the film goes nowhere in any sense of the phrase.

All told, the fellow moved less than a kilometre even though the actual perimeter of the beachhead ought to have been tens of kilometres deep at that point. There is not enough shelling and not enough of the air attacks. There are certainly not enough troops on the beaches, too few ships at sea, too few planes in the air and no French civilians.  The whole film is thin from this point on.

Lest one think that this is an arty film rather than a documentary, consider the lost potential.  The Mole is a long pier that could have been a metaphor for the evacuation itself in the same way that 1968's Oh! What a lovely war used a Brighton pier as a metaphor for British conduct of the First World War.  In Nolan's hands, the Mole is just a pier.

For actual events in which they played a significant part,  the Germans scarcely show up in the film at all.  They are not the unseen menace for Nolan, as in great horror films. Rather, they are irrelevant to whatever Nolan is trying to do.  Someone had to fire the torpedo at the ship. Musta been the Germans.  But had Nolan interposed an entire story line about invading aliens with laser weapons and time travel,  this movie would have worked as well as an episode of Star Trek.  Fine as it goes but that's not history.  That is history as a second-rate video game or tired television script.

The real Germans are as irrelevant to this film as are the French or the Belgians, in whose countries the events actually took place.  The entire series of scenes with Generic Soldier A and Generic Soldier B are just set-ups for another of the bangs, crashes, and flashes that one must expect of an overly-hyped summer movie.

Just as this is a war movie without an enemy,  it is one without blood, either figurative or literal. Bombs drop.  People die.  On land,  the dead bodies are indistinguishable from fellows who are asleep. In the water they float, apparently all on their backs so the actors won't drown, in uniforms unmarked by any trauma whatsoever. A handful of British soldiers queue up at the water's edge in their immaculate uniforms waiting for something to happen. They look out of place in every respect.  The whole scene just looks and feels wrong. There is no sign of authority or structure in the way of sergeants and officers.  Men just stand about. Under strain they do not panic or rush the ships. This is not surreal in the fashion of Apocalypse Now. This is just nonsense.

The image at right has turned up in a few of the advanced publicity for the film. It's a shot of troops on The Mole, waiting for evacuation, just before a German plane bombs them.

The picture is reminiscent of Alex Colville's war art right down to the colours. It appears to offer the same sort of insight.  

But the shot is so fleeting in the movie, the framing so tight, that any wider sense of what Nolan could have been driving at is lost. There is no deeper meaning here.

Had there been more to the story underneath the movie, Nolan might have pulled off the imagery in that still coupled with the related idea he uses of the Generic Soldiers who carry one of his storylines. The problem is that Nolan's characters are just flat. No one cares about them nor does Nolan give us a reason to pay attention to them beyond the obvious fact that his camera follows them. The notion that one of them is a French soldier who has stolen a British uniform goes nowhere.  It means nothing since this detail emerges only at the end of the movie and without Nolan having created any hint there might be something to this fellow's behaviour that we ought to have noticed. Having not aroused any curiosity about the fellow or his identity - very few people speak in the movie, after all - the Big Reveal elicits a "so what" response instead of an "Aha!".

That is, sadly, the general reaction to what could have been a memorably good film, if not a truly great one.

[Revised August 16, 2017]