Sunday, July 23, 2017

Contrarian View Of Nolan's Dunkirk


Dunkirk my contrarian take. 

2.8 out out of 5 aka 56%

I went in expecting to be bowled over by Dunkirk but wound up feeling sort of meh about this critically feted film. So I speak here as a member of a beleaguered contrarian group, smaller than a tiny thimble, which is less than enthusiastic about it. 

I'm not sure if there's a spoiler alert in this. There may be. I'm trying to avoid them. So govern yourself accordingly, as lawyers like to say. 

I can see what's good in Dunkirk, a film I'd label (neologism alert) a "dramumentary." (About that notion in a while.) Nolan conveys the carnage and human wreckage-filled horror of war through the prism of the Dunkirk rescue. The effects are masterfully done. Dead bodies are askew everywhere and keeping piling up blast after blast from intermittent but constant air bombing. Bombing and explosions and dogfights and killing and drowning are everywhere and ceaseless.

In the midst of all the pervading horrible sights and sounds of war and its mounting carnage arises a focus on a few individuals in multifaceted story lines that operate as microcosms: one soldier's struggle to survive through an unending series of disasters; all that happens on one boat gone out to rescue; the sequence of air battles as mostly manifest in the dogfighting of one particular pilot. Beyond this concentration on a certain small number of individuals is the overarching macrorocosmic story of Dunkirk itself: the entrapment of hundreds of thousands of soldiers; the determined German effort, mostly by air power, to kill as many of them as possible; the efforts such as they were to fend off the German attacks by limited British aerial counter power; the call for civilian help; the help arriving and the massive rescue. 

As a kind of transition between the microcosmic and the macrocosmic, Nolan has a few sequences involving the officer in charge on the ground, Kenneth Branagh, liaising with British high command and with his immediate subordinates. He's where the action is, is quite proximate to where all the German slaughtering is going on, but seem to be in some invisible protective cone, looking sharp and clean, his uniform crisp and immaculate, totally untouched. I don't quite get that. 

A big problem for me is that after the set up and the delineation of the different narratives, I kept waiting for whatever it was that was going to emerge to compel and sustain my interest. It never came. The quick and constant cross cutting from narrative to narrative, all against the backdrop of the unceasing German onslaught, blunted the dramatic impact of all of them for as interesting as they were. I became increasingly detached and distanced from all of it. 

It all held my attention but I wasn't riveted and my feelings got increasingly numb. I wanted some intimate connection with something to solder me emotionally to the stories. But the constancy of the effects, the repetitiousness of so much, the insufficiency of anything "inner" coming from the film got me not bored but approaching it, more like impatient, not impatient for something to happen, to be sure things were happening including the same kinds of things over and over--one more ship blasted, one more sequence of dead bodies, of dogfights, of soldiers either drowning or swimming desperately to be rescued, one more scene with Branagh calm, cool, understand and collected, with his stiff upper lip and all--but impatient for something personal and concrete and intimate to move me. (Apples and oranges sure, but Life Is Beautiful with no effects, really with essentially a heartbreakingly tragic premise has, so to say, for me at least, more emotional power in its little cinematic finger than this movie has in its whole spectacular effects drenched body.) 

Enhancing the numbness created by the spectacle is the irritating contrived and crashingly loud music that means to juice up the moments of grave occurrence, the moments of particular suspenseful climaxes and moments of narrative drama but rather gets in the way of all of them by not letting them be. And maybe the loud music indicates a certain lack of cinematic self confidence in Nolan, that he has to pound it into our heads that this is climatic or excitingly suspenseful or particularly dramatic. As a negative complement to the head pounding music is our difficulty much of the time making out what people are saying to each other, particularly the pilots. 

This guy, linked to below, a professional film critic, puts some of this well: 

....In devoting so much time to the dull, counterproductive construction of its action sequences, Dunkirk dispenses with nearly all other elements of drama. At first, this is to the film's credit; the characters don't waste time offering backstory or personality quirks, as they're too focused on the immediacy of survival. In fact, most of the characters have names you can only glean from the credits, with the men becoming too preoccupied with their own skins to give a damn what the fellow next to them is called. After a time, however, the blurred lines between characters only exacerbate the editing's cold, distancing effect. This inadvertently stunts the power of a few instances of interpersonal contact that do materialize, such as the traumatized soldier (Cillian Murphy) who's picked up by Dawson from a torpedoed ship—a subplot that's so quickly sidelined that it barely gathers emotional force...

In the end,  in my reading of the movie, Nolan tends to subvert Dunkirk as the exemplification of the glory of British pluck. He clearly recognizes the bravery of the civilian rescue and he appreciates the demonstration of felt obedience to duty. But, as I see it, he is more outraged by the unthinkable human wreckage this war has taken. So outraged in fact, that I have the sense that he isn't overly celebratory of the heroic achievement of the rescue. His appreciation for it as the film reveals it is muted by the transcending horror in human wreckage of the war. As one example, the Germans aren't vilified as the enemy. For Nolan, war itself, not Germany, is the enemy. 

This shows in the last scene where the soldier who makes it is riding home in a train through the English countryside with stops along the way to cheering crowds. One civilian hands up to him and a fellow surviving soldier a couple of bottles of beer and keeps intoning "Well done." The "Well done" sounds fatuous and ludicrous, the absurdity of "Pip, pip" with its black hole human-vacuuming-up hollowness adjacent to the hellish horror these soldiers have survived. I'm reminded of the townspeople's absurd enthusiasm for the war, World War I to be sure, in All Quiet On The Western Front in stark juxtaposition to what Paul Bäumer experiences. The surviving soldier, a mainstay character, can only close his eyes and retreat in to himself to try to escape the hollow cheering and force away his vivid memory of all he's survived. 

I'll come close to ending of these doubtless too many words with a note on  the idea of "dramumentary." My sense is that Nolan wants to give a true account of what went on at Dunkirk, wants to record what happened there dispassionately, relentlessly and remorselessly, but also wants to tell particular stories about, show the drama and excitement of, what went on. He wants to tell an overall story about an amazing, virtually miraculous, civilian rescue but he does not want the heroic glory of that rescue to displace his insistent larger theme of the despised-by-him useless waste, maiming and death, the toll of wreckage war wreaks. 

In my judgment in his merging of these two approaches, drama and documentary, he loses artistic control. They obtrude on each other such that for all that is undeniably good in the film, some of it spectacular, the good and the spectacular become spectacle. Spectacle overwhelms the drama and the human; and the audience, or at least this audience of one, gets numbed, detached, distanced and impatient. 

I'll almost finally, finally say, there is something ahistoric in Nolan's larger theme. His subsuming of World War II, what the allies were fighting against, by the theme of war as Hell is to me simple minded to the point of moral infantilism. 

Finally, finally, I can well think that my reading of this movie is highly idiosyncratic and off the mark. So many smart people have gone on with so many superlatives about Dunkirk. If I'm off base, slightly, somewhat or wildly, then I'd love to be shown the error of my ways and judgment.

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