Christopher Nolan's latest deals for the first time with an actual event, massive in scale and complex in nature--the mass exodus of over 300,000 soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, arguably the greatest retreat (some might prefer the term 'escape') in history.
Not exactly Nolan's cup of tea; he usually directs intricately woven narratives with generous doses of genre tropes either science fiction (Interstellar) or thriller-noir (Inception, Memento). A true event would I think resist such treatment; the audience would always want to know what's going on where and why, intricacy be damned. So what does Nolan do?
Why, come up with three or four narratives intricately woven together of course, with a generous dose of genre tropes (this time the thriller and the war epic, the latter further subdivided into sinking-ship melodrama, besieged soldier psychodrama, aerial dogfights). Love him or hate him you have to respect Nolan's persistence.
The movie's difficult to follow especially on first viewing; it jumps about with only a handful of intertitles to explain where and when you are, then drops the titles altogether as the four narratives taking place across three time periods start merging.
Nolan's obviously in love with the 70 mm screen and with all the big toys that came with the Second World War: the huge destroyers the highflung Spitfires the shrieking Messerschmitts the moles standing tall above relentlessly crashing waves. The artillery fire rifle fire thud of bombs heartstopping bang of a torpedo slamming into a ship's hull while you sit eating jam on toast.
I've always faulted Nolan for failing to shoot action sequences properly--he seems to want to cut his footage into little chunks and assemble them (like his narratives) into near-incomprehensible constructs. Sometimes he fails at 'near-incomprehensible' resulting in a jumble of images badly thrown together.
Nolan shows improvement here. The sequences build slowly the action more or less well-shot well-edited, presumably because he's playing a larger game mixing different sequences from different narratives. He doesn't want to hand over poorly-assembled pieces when there's an overarching puzzle to put together.
The result is ambitious certainly; Nolan isn't known for taking the easy route. Unfortunately he's also not known for subtlety or a sense of humor--the movie's comic highlight for one involves a man looking for a quiet place to defecate.
Is this Nolan's best work to date? Why not? He's taken on something he's never done before (Large-scale historical drama set in WW 2), avoided one habitual flaw (incoherent action) is nevertheless attempting something new--or at least something most mainstream directors wouldn't touch (war sequences sans conventional drama).
Do I consider Dunkirk a great war movie? It's more of a great war diorama the whole theater of action often captured in the round (those long shots!) little figures and equipment arrayed both for and against accordingly with little visible CGI (love him for that not to mention his insistence on 70 mm film as opposed to digital; even projected digitally on a regular screen the images are impressive). Some of the figurines emote convincingly even poignantly--Mark Rylance's brave little mariner chugging away in his little boat; Kenneth Branagh's pier master hovering fretfully over his massive pier; Tom Hardy's heroic RAF pilot perched on his endlessly gliding Spitfire.
Kubrick has also been accused of pushing figurines across vast landscapes though his early Paths of Glory had enough conventional drama to grant said figurines humanity (plus a powerful coda to give them a properly emotional sendoff). Barry Lyndon demonstrates what Kubrick was truly capable of: lengthy understated narratives that almost despite themselves allow us to feel for the scurrying ants--then and only then do you realize (as Kubrick probably intended) that setup and angle were deliberately chosen, that the ant imagery was an illusion meant to be dispelled at the last minute, that these insects are actually living breathing human beings worthy of our attention.
Quite an achievement considering Kubrick's film was adapted from a 19th century novel and Thackeray's voice (Redmond Barry braggart and all-around rogue) differs considerably from the film's (Michael Horden as Narrator, muted to the point of functioning as background drone). Both are long both beautifully crafted; you come out of their pictures emotionally and physically spent. But Kubrick ramps up the intensity with magisterial grace, the occasional setpiece here there (two duels with pistols; a fistfight; a titanic battle between French German British forces) building towards a memorable climax.
Nolan by way of comparison starts out quietly enough with Tony (Fionn Whitehead) looking around for a place to take a dump; the soldier hasn't squatted longer than five minutes before someone fires a volley above his head. The rest of the picture jerks along as erratically: boredom BANG (shots fired) boredom BOOM BOOM BOOM (bombs drop) boredom WHAM (torpedo hits)--you get the idea. Makes one want to swear off crapping indefinitely.
I've been told by someone who's experienced actual battle that this is how warfare happens. I believe him: guns are often fired and explosions detonated with little apparent planning. But the end goal--a mimetic experience--seems so puny; you could probably achieve similar results with a well-staged live re-enactment, or a state-of-the-art virtual reality installation (like what Alejandro G. Inarritu did recently at Cannes).
Conventional narrative has the advantage of accumulating momentum emotion drama; Nolan's patchwork series of vignettes recalls D.W. Griffith's fourway climax in Intolerance: overwhelming but not emotionally so, inspiring admiration more for individual setpieces than for the overall scheme. Could a large production with little or no conventional narrative structure work? I think so; something like 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick again!) or Jacques Tati's Playtime--something with a design rich enough to offer new insights every time they're seen. Can't imagine Nolan's picture being so generous.
Not even sure this limited mode of storytelling is appropriate for this particular episode of the war. From what I remember Dunkirk involved a series of holding actions meant to slow the Nazi advance while a miracle was being pulled off: the drafting of thousands of small boats to take the soldiers off the beach. The story suggests focusing on the collective group's action rather than on individual heroics, and most of Nolan's movie is devoted to the latter--Rylance's mariner for example leaves ahead of the other boats has his own atypical adventures (a rescued soldier played by Cillian Murphy, an attacking German bomber). You want to ask: what did the other boat crews feel about being enlisted en masse? What made them risk life limb property to cross the Channel? Tom Hardy's heroic pilot is a sight to see but what about the other flyers who (presumably) practiced less implausible heroism?
Frustrating to think of what Dunkirk is compared to what it could have been--something truer to the subject matter I would think, with more substantial things to say on the subject of men (soldiers civilians) under the stress of battle. All the more frustrating considering what Nolan has accomplished, technically visually aurally.
First published in Businessworld 7.27.17