Friday, July 21, 2017

Modern war

There's a generational divide in movie audiences. Pre-Deer Hunter, war movies typically focused on the heroism inherent to soldiering and not the impact that it often had on the soldiers themselves. Despite the catastrophic human cost, including those killed and the survivors, war was usually still presented with a pre-WW1 lens, where marching off to battle was a big party and, after some requisite tension, the heroes would win out and everyone would stroll out of the theater with a sense of satisfaction. Post-Deer Hunter and, for American audiences, post-Vietnam in general, war movies have tended to focus on the psychological impact, both on the people doing the shooting and the people living around them after they return. Society has gradually come to grips with the fact that, as William Sherman once noted, war is hell and although there may be moments of genuine heroism, no one emerges unscathed, even through glorious victory.

That's why it's perhaps singularly appropriate for Christopher Nolan to have presented Dunkirk as his first film stepping away from science fiction premises in quite some time, but still carrying the themes prevalent in his storytelling. Most of Nolan's films deal with psychology in some form or another. Memento, the Batman series, Inception, Interstellar; all of them deal with either extreme choices and the consequent impact of those choices or the essence of making those choices in the first place. Most good screenplays spend some time analyzing the personality of their protagonists (and often their antagonists; see: the Joker.) but Nolan's tend to step beyond that and confront the viewers with a series of if/thens that quite feasibly could have led the story in a number of different directions and leave different parts of the audience sympathizing with the different possibilities. Dunkirk does that well.

First and foremost, Dunkirk was not a success. As Nolan takes pains to point out via Churchill's speech on the subject, no one celebrates a defeat, despite the extreme bravery inherent to the RAF pilots over that week and the private citizens who enabled the rescue to be as successful as it was. So while there was heroism, it was heroic action in the name of defeat, not victory. Nolan highlights this from the opening moments of the film, when Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) are shown attempting to get ahead of the thousands of soldiers already on the beach by pretending to be Red Cross workers transporting the wounded. These are not heroic soldiers. These are guys attempting to cut the line, as it were, to save their own skins instead of those similarly stranded. In many war movies, these guys would be portrayed as cowards for fleeing the battle. But the battle was already over and like the old man handing out blankets at the end says: "Sometimes, surivin' is enough." This is especially true in the era of "total war" which became prominent again during World War II, where the pre-Enlightenment practice of slaughtering the fleeing enemy, rather than simply routing them from the field or capturing them, once again rose to the fore.

But I think Nolan's point was to show the desperation and panic that are as inherent to combat as heroism often is. These guys were the unwitting pawns in someone else's war, like the Lannister soldiers of this season's first episode, and all they wanted to do was get home in one piece. It was, of course, not common knowledge as to what the German regime had become and how "someone else's war" could be seen as a war by humanity against inhumanity. But that engages my frequent bias against WW2-era films. That conflict is frequently mentioned as the last "good war" that everyone can get behind, as if it somehow lacked political or economic motives. But war is war. There are very rarely good motives for it and almost always pernicious ones that tend to detract from the heroic angle if one looks too closely. Most pre-Vietnam war films didn't bother to do that. Almost all of them do that now and Nolan has gone one step further in making a film about defeat and desperation, rather than saving the day.

On the film itself, it has Nolan's hallmarks all over it, in terms of the quick cuts between closeups and broad shots to create context for the subject's reactions, and in terms of the long focus on certain characters as they process what's in front of them with visage, rather than verbs. Nolan apparently wrote the screenplay specifically with minimal dialogue, attempting to emphasize the visual medium. I don't know if that's what led him and Hans Zimmer, the composer, to try to inject tension with music tempo deliberately, rather than as an added element, but I have to say that I think they overdid it. Perhaps it was just an artifact of the theater I was sitting in having the volume too high, as we were getting a lot of reverb that often drowned out said minimal dialogue, but the pounding bass line accompanying moments of high tension became rather annoying. If your story and direction are already providing that stress, why do you think vibrating every seat in the theater is going to make it better? People ducking on the mole while bombs drop around them and the howl of Stukas ripping overhead is plenty of visual and aural excitement already. I don't think Zimmer's efforts really helped and probably detracted from my focus on the scene, as I remember shaking my head at the accompanying noise.

Most of the performances were solid. Whitehead, Barnard, Harry Styles, and Nolan-favorite Cilian Murphy all did well at conveying the strain that their characters were under without becoming too emotive. There's a fine line between what most perceive as wooden and obvious dolor and shellshock and I think most of them hit it. Kenneth Branagh was Branagh and Tom Hardy was Hardy; both filling their roles appropriately, although I think Branagh's scenes rode a little high on the sentimental angle and I kind of yearn for the day when Hardy will have another role that allows him to do something other than look grim and intense. He was brilliant in The Revenant and I still think he should have won the Oscar for that role.

However, the man who beat him for the trophy had the best performance of this film: Mark Rylance. His redoubtable Mr. Dawson was easily the most magnetic character of the story. Every moment of his face, digesting the circumstances and then deciding on a course of action, spoke volumes. This was the pinnacle for those who would view war films as an example of the good and right succeeding over the non-, as every instance displayed his determination to do what he felt was the right thing. That character was the soul of the Dunkirk effort on the part of the regular citizens and Rylance played it brilliantly. Apparently, he initiated a ton of improv between takes and I think it paid off.

And it's worth noting here that Nolan certainly doesn't shy away from mentioning that, although the British government was making efforts to rescue their stranded soldiers  (and maybe even their French and Dutch compatriots), they were also preserving resources (mostly ships) for the impending defense of the home country, too. So the pawns were still pawns, ready to be sacrificed for the king or queen (almost literally) and Dunkirk remains a modern war film, in that respect. Overall, I enjoyed it and I remain a fan of his work. I'm not quite on the "best film of 2017!" level that many critics (and many of my friends) seem to be, but it's certainly a great effort and worth seeing on the big screen, as opposed to waiting for the small one.

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