Friday, July 28, 2017

A Second Note On Nolan's Dunkirk


In rebuttal, I think the absence of personal backstories was intentional and meant not to detract from the real objective - to immerse the viewer into the middle of the horror and feel it without the comfort of a movie gloss. If you see war movies evolving from post WW2 good guy-bad guy/American heroes to Vietnam-era war is hell and one side is not better than another to Spielberg/Hanks resurrecting the greatest generation with moving backstories, this is another evolution - using cinema to make you feel the fear, desperation, panic,commitment and then heroism without being side-tracked by any other agenda. It's true that he focused more on the horror than the rescue but in a way that made the audience finally feel that they were being rescued as wel.

Not as much fun as Hollywood's other war genres, but a more meaningful experience.


I wouldn't take on anyone's view of this movie different from mine. It's in the end a subjective call. The best thing to do more than argue and say "You're wrong" is to share perspectives and offer reasons for the different view. 

I didn't worry too much about the absence of back stories as I think part of the point was to show the leading figures of each of three stories in relation to what aspect of Dunkirk each was microcosm for. The confusion I have over one line of thinking about the movie, not yours as I read your note, is the complaint, even Podhoretz makes it in his good review, of the lack or absence of story telling. 

I can't see that point as a factual matter about the film: there are three distinct story lines which form the spine of the film and they come together at the end. I think Nolan apart from wanting to give an immersive sense of what Hell comprised Dunkirk wanted to give an immediately personal sense of it all by having each story line operate, as I say, as a microcosm for different aspects of it: the rescue by modest civilian boats; the air battles, since aerial bombing was the prime means of the Germans trying to kill the hundreds of thousands of stranded allies; and the story of the one surviving soldier who runs the gamut of most of what Dunkirk involved. 

For me the constant cross cutting among narratives, the intrusively loud climax-signaling music, the difficulty understanding a lot of what was being said and some other things blunted the dramatic impact of the stories. But stories involving specific individuals, albeit without back stories, there were. 

Nolan was effective in his desire to immerse the audience in his recreation of the carnage of Dunkirk--I didn't see the IMAX version--but after a point I found it arbitrarily repetitive, one more dog fight, one more ship blown up, one more bomb falling near the soldiers on the pier, one more scene with soldiers trying to swim for dear life, some making it, some not. I started to get fidgety with it all and that too blunted the impact of the three stories, I thought. 

I think the strongest point Podhoretz makes is the ahistoricalness of the movie. We didn't need a history lesson to be sure, but there had to be a way of dramatically showing what was at stake, what led up to Dunkirk other than a few words from the unfazed, spic and span clean and laconic Branagh character. That to my mind doesn't involve rooting for good guys in the white hats and booing the bad guys in the black hats. It rather involves the dramatization of more context including what the Axis powers were about, what the Allies were fighting against and what decisions high command was making and why. I mean to put it baldly there actually were good guys and bad guys, but in my admittedly weird take on the movie, Germany wasn't the enemy--war itself was (and is) the enemy. 

Semi-finally, it struck me, and I read Podhoretz to say it struck him too, that the amazing feat of the Dunkirk rescue was understated and that that understatement is in disaccord with with how history and culture understand what a monumental thing the Dunkirk rescue was. The addition of some context would have helped illuminate that. Of course the bravery and fact of the rescue is present. But I  think there's some tendentious distortion in understating it. 

So, finally, my own theory, probably idiosyncratic, as to the why of that distortion is that, as I noted in my own note about the film, in fact Nolan had an agenda, which was to show the carnage as outstripping the importance of the rescue in order to give, at bottom, his own version of the war is Hell theme, and that no part of war is to be overly-valorized. The numbers, given the situation, to my mind, belie that outstripping: about 40,000 casualties against 340,000 saved in the most perilously near to impossible circumstances; about 750 small civilian boats with about 220 sunk by the Luftwaffe. 

Anyway that's me on it. I don't know enough about the history of war films to say how Dunkirk relates to the traditions of them. 

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