Dunkirk

dunkirk-2017To what extent do we not really see a movie — see it, hear it, experience it — if we haven’t seen it on the big screen? The life of a film, after all, goes on long past its youth in the multiplexes; most people will come to it via DVD, or even on cable. Christopher Nolan’s World War II epic Dunkirk (an epic though it only lasts roughly an hour and forty minutes, plus end credits) was initially released in some theaters in the mammoth IMAX format, creating an immersive aspect that mitigated its otherwise somewhat impersonal narrative. Richard Brody opined in the New Yorker that Dunkirk, “if it’s not seen in enveloping and engulfing and body-shaking scale, may be nothing at all.” I, however, have just seen it on the fifteen-inch monitor of my laptop, and heard it through ear buds. If you missed it writ (or projected) large, you haven’t missed much; the movie is as stressful and relentless scaled down, and may even pick up some points for subtle intimacy that may have eluded the film’s deafened, overwhelmed theatrical viewers.

Nolan has approached the story of Dunkirk — from which 300,000 English and French soldiers withdrew and headed to England — as an experiential, almost experimental affair. We get no backstories among the soldiers or fighter pilots or officers, nor does Nolan observe very many well-worn combat-flick tropes. This isn’t like Saving Private Ryan, which yoked several technically superb war sequences to a series of clichéd leftovers from older war pictures. In this context — where the point is to get as many men out of harm’s way as possible so they can survive to defend England’s shores — perhaps the most heroic moment is a small, sad one, when a shell-shocked soldier asks about a young volunteer, “Will he be okay?” The volunteer’s friend knows the truth — the soldier, in his panic, has inadvertently killed the young man — but opts to protect the soldier from his guilt by responding in the affirmative.

That soldier might, after all, go on to fight for England and save lives. What would anyone gain from the fallen man’s mate spitting out “No, he’s dead, you killed him”? There’s a refreshing aura of the adult about Dunkirk. There exists an efficient ender of German hopes, a Spitfire pilot played by Tom Hardy (who, as in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, spends most of his screen time with his lower face obscured by a mask). The pilot escorts several Nazis to hell, but he simply has a job to do, and he does it. About his life, about his plans interrupted by the war, we know precisely nothing. Nobody matters personally because everyone matters collectively. Dunkirk does flip back and forth between various sets of survivors, a small civilian boat requisitioned for the purpose of scooping up any floating soldiers, and the patch of land that must be kept clear for retreat (Kenneth Branagh brings some warmth and weariness to his few minutes as a commander monitoring the evacuation on land). Sky, earth, sea.

Dunkirk comes as close to an act of pure cinema as anything Nolan has made; he dispenses with dialogue and “character moments” in an effort to cut to the bone, to extract the essence of the event, which was survival. “Good work, lads,” says a blind old man greeting the young soldiers. “All we did was survive,” answers one of them. “That’s enough,” says the old man. The lack of Hollywood orientation (here’s a young lad who leaves behind a worried mother and girlfriend) helps us map our own fears and hopes onto the young men. (I think we fleetingly see one woman, a nurse, who points weary soldiers below decks where they can tuck into tea and toast with jam.)

It’s not quite just a virtuoso exercise, though Nolan here proves himself a master of the technical effects he strives for and achieves. (The only real demerit on this front is Hans Zimmer’s typical overbearing, discordant score.) Dunkirk is as uninterested in political context as are any of its hungry, terrified soldiers, whose experience we are obliged to share. The Germans are mostly felt only as the piercing staccato of enemy gunfire; whenever one of their planes goes down, the movie eschews exultation in favor of simple relief at a micro-disaster averted within a larger, growing catastrophe. This could be the war movie, made at a time when its physical extremes could be effectively, even beautifully, simulated, released at a time when we need its narrative of ascendant though exhausted decency.

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