Sometimes, a specific style can be just as much burdensome as it can be awesome, particularly if used ad nauseum. It seems that the unanimous example for this is the cinematic compendium of Christopher Nolan. Keep in mind, I actually have nothing against the repetition of his own formula. He is one of the boldest, most captivating, talented, and orgasmically intelligent men in the business and I do concede that, despite people's issues with him, this remains the ultimate consensus. However, when he released Inception, my favorite Nolan film to date, in 2010, it was both the best and worst occurrence for him.
Yes, Nolan has made visionary strokes of cinema. Yes, he has pushed the boundaries of how one can tell a story. Yes, his ideas are meticulous, enlightening, and enrapturing to the point of mild convolution. None of this was new. However, this was the first time he integrate all of these traits and turned it into an unexpectedly commercial, accessible blockbuster. Yes, even more so than Dark Knight. However, while it was a cultural juggernaut, it did lead to more excoriating dissection of his subsequent films. The final entry of his Batman trilogy, while critically praised, was also panned for not having a cohesive, solid story. Interstellar, while critically praised, was also ridiculed for being a third-rate Inception in space, meaning that indeed, critical praise means nothing to the discerning Internet squadron. Oh, the venom I've encountered!
So after being away from film for three years, he decided to try the most daring thing he could possibly attempt: a film under two hours long with a story not originated by Nolan, but moreso through true events, executed with a relatively normal tone and with a cast that includes a former boy band member. In relation to his other works, Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk certainly does go in a different...direction! *rimshot*
The film takes place during WWII in 1940. Thousands of Allied soldiers are stranded in Dunkirk after the invasion of France. They await deliverance and freedom from Dunkirk. With the assistance and support of the Navy and Air Force, a valiant plot is devised to evacuate thousands of British and French soldiers. The film follows all involved, whether tracking men hoping to heroes or those praying to be survivors.
While it is Nolan's most straightforward story, he, of course, can't make it too simplistic. One element worth noting is that it is told through three varied perspectives: of land, of air, and of sea. Honestly, when I initially heard of this approach, I thought they were going to tell it through each perspective individually and tell the story in a way that would be something akin to Pulp Fiction crossed with, like, Saving Private Ryan. But no, it is all concurrently, thus providing a more linear structure.
I must be honest that, while it assuredly makes sense in the context, I was sort of intrigued by the concept of telling each individually and then, maybe tying it all together near the end. Because Nolan goes with, well, the normal way, it does become a little less riveting, if one were hoping for something more lyrical and acutely disjointed. However, where the genius lies is his pitch-perfect timing and conglomeration of the three perspectives. At a piecemeal pace, sea becomes the sworn antagonist of land and water, representing capriciousness and the contingent aftermath of defeat. Land seems to symbolize security and air symbolizing freedom, but sea manages to threaten the nature of both of them. It's the ironic, hapless center of it all, even moreso than any other force.
That sense of dread and uncertainty lingers coldly and mercilessly throughout the film. Nolan is a sage when it comes to the usage of sound. He uses his dialogue sparingly and meagerly, which begets moments of silence, particularly in the first few minutes, that create a blunt, unwavering atmosphere of ambiguity. The mood of the film is personified through Hans Zimmer's august, crazily ambitious score. Zimmer shrewdly inserts dynamics and tempos in a way that feels as if he, himself, is experiencing the moment. The sound design perfectly captures all the nuances of the situation. When a bombing is coming closer, it begins muffled and increases in power. When fellow soldiers try to transport an injured soldier to safety, it almost begins routinely triumphant, but proceeds to grow more frantic, chaotic, and formidable, much like the situation at hand.
The music is probably the most expressive, vibrant character of the film, as is the cinematography. When the camera focuses on an actor, it is just that: focused. It is pointed and searingly contemplative, as if it wants penetrate through the characters' souls and psyches. Consider a scene after a group of soldiers recuperate after an air raid. Gibson, played by Aneurin Barnard, stays outside the ship and the camera fixates on his plaintive, hauntingly foretelling, afflicted eyes, as he almost predicts the ship being torpedoed before it gets torpedoed. Speaking of which, the grandiose cinematography is also apt at displaying whopping battle scenes and painful imagery, such as a wave of ducking soldiers during an air raid.
Because the technical aspects do such a tremendous job delivering raw emotions, the characters surprisingly enough aren't as heavily emphasized. However, they all are fortified by interminably capable and amicably convincing actors. Yes, even Harry Styles. His role, again, isn't heavily punctuated, but it does make his, and every other actor's role, more human. However, his abilities do come into the spotlight in a moment where his character is prodded to be all parts desperate, vulnerable, and paranoid. Other standouts include Kenneth Branaugh (duh), Jack Lowden as Collins, the determined, resolute pilot, and Cillian Murphy, who immerses himself as a soldier unbearably beset by the mayhem at hand.
However, as much as I admire the film, I would call it masterful, not immaculate. Given how he does, admittedly, have to surrender, or moreso keep in check, his propensities for his unbridled, complex story structures, it often does feel like a punctiliously detailed account of the Dunkirk evacuation; a historical guide, if you will. Because of this, the characters don't always feel specific. At times, they feel more like figures that happen to take a part in this salient historical event, which makes the handling of them feel slightly aloof at certain points. Also, I felt that, with all the film's grave, morbid discussions and demonstrations of survival, the ending was too easily intrepid and sentimentally positive, minus a gripping final shot. I understand it was, all in all, a positive turnout, but I felt that the grittiness and gravitas of those earlier moments was somewhat stunted and abandoned for the expected, bold, God-bless-our-heroes ending. Maybe Nolan was trying for a Spielberg moment or something. Given the ending to Private Ryan, you might not want to go too heavy-handed, Nolan.
Overall, Dunkirk is a brazen, magniloquent reminder of Nolan's technical, emotional, and intellectual prowesses. It may be his most accessible and most simple film to date, but Nolan at his most middling impressiveness is still better than most directors doing their damndest. And who knew that 2017, of all years, would be the year where I can finally relent in calling myself a Harry Styles fan. I don't whether this is a fluke or a sign of greater things to ensue, but the ante has been upped. The remaining members have to really up their game, in order to compete with you.
Who am I kidding? They won't.
RATING: Three-and-a-half stars out of four