Monday, September 11, 2017

Dunkirk (2017)

Since approximately Saving Private Ryan, big-name directors taking turns at World War II shows has become a bit of a rite of passage (so make that since the 50th anniversary of D-Day). A partial list would include Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor), Roman Polanski (The Pianist), Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds), and Robert Zemeckis (Allied). Clint Eastwood made two in one year (Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima) and even John Woo made one (Windtalkers). Still, it was surprising to me that director and writer Christopher Nolan had any interest in the subject, given the indie / superhero bent of his career. But apparently he has been nursing a screenplay for some 25 years. In many ways it shows. Dunkirk is full of a big bushel basket of ambitious everything—blood, sweat, tears, maybe one or two kitchen sinks—but it's missing one thing: narrative clarity. With all the Dark Knight business he retailed for years it might be easy to forget that Nolan is a British citizen. That's evident here, and he is obviously stirred by the British effort at Dunkirk. He pretty much assumes we care as much as he does, and that's where he's starting from. If you don't know much about Dunkirk the historical event and key battle of World War II—which I didn't, lazybones me, assuming the movie would fill me in—then you might find yourself somewhat at sea like all the imperiled people in the movie. It also doesn't help that Dunkirk is treated like one of those things so big it can only be told with the stories of multiple otherwise unconnected people. I never felt like I 100% grasped everything I was looking at—who these people were, what exactly was happening to them specifically, and what happened to my compassion. The battle scenes are tremendous, yes, particularly the aerial engagements, but tremendous battle scenes are not enough. The deaths can be horrible and there were touching displays of human kindness, but horrible deaths and touching human kindness are also not enough. The notable lack of clarity in Dunkirk, in fact, was unexpected partly because I thought one of the few worthwhile points about the otherwise incoherent mess of Interstellar was Nolan's ability to visually communicate experiences of relativity without getting that confusing. I was dubious about Dunkirk from the start, but when word of mouth got to me that it was Nolan's masterpiece I thought I had to take a look. As far as I'm concerned, The Dark Knight and then Memento are still the ones by him to beat. As World War II movies go, I think I even like Allied better, though it's not nearly as self-serious.

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