Dunkirk

I'll take Otto Dix over John Singer Sargent any day.

Enough ink has been spilled on Nolan’s excessive reliance (Mark Reliance) on exposition that I shall not linger on it too much here, only to say that the lack of exposition in DUNKIRK only brings into focus Nolan’s weaknesses as a filmmaker. He is not a filmmaker of ideas or concepts, but of slogans and taglines. His films—even in their accidentally compelling termite fashion—burrow away at these statements, expanding them into myriad directions and overlapping thematic folds (glued together by exposition!). But cinema as a language to express or evoke ideas completely eludes him.

DUNKIRK is as deep and as interesting as those ubiquitous “Keep Calm and Carry On” propaganda posters. This could easily be mistaken for his idea of the film: two hours of hyper-British stiff-upper-lip myth-making. And Dunkirk is certainly mythic. I grew up being told its narrative alongside the Battle of the Bulge, Arnhem, Okinawa, and the Berlin Air-Lift as defining moments of our national identity (I'm an American with English heritage). And the film certainly oozes with this self-evident belief in nationalist myth. But in typical Nolan fashion the film play-acts at complicating this myth with a handful of gags that supposedly illustrate the nastiness of war: the shell-shocked survivor and men devouring themselves inside a beached vessel awaiting the tide. But these are merely propping up those chest-out-stomach-in REAL MEN of the good war. Nolan’s IMDB Director Trademark™ is feigning political complexity by asking rhetorical questions only to unequivocally answer them in the conservative affirmative.

Full disclosure: I do not like the films of Christopher Nolan. However, I must admit that the first 30 or so minutes of DUNKIRK are not merely good “for a Nolan” but genuinely brilliant. The opening shot of bodies moving through empty streets and the raining pamphlets that read “we surround you” and the complex interplay of movement and stillness and utter helplessness are the closest Nolan has come to a cinematic idea. After this opening salvo the film remains peppered with fascinating moments and compelling images swirling around a completely vapid film. Tom Hardy’s spitfire flying without gas for eternity is among the most surreal and beautifully tragic images of any World War II film—reminiscent more of OVERLORD or LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA than SAVING PRIVATE RYAN or THE THIN RED LINE (two films I find have more in common than many care to admit).

But these are only glimpses; moments of poetic interest that peek out of the morass of the film-proper not unlike Trinity glimpsing the Sun for one brief moment in THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS. After its knockout opening act it settles into a series of repetitions that are clearly untheorized and un-formalized by Nolan. They feel like mistakes—the kind that happen when you don’t see the repetition in the script or the shooting but in the cutting room. Another shot of the men looking up at the dive bombers. Another shot of the men nearly drowning in a metal contraption. Another shot of Kenneth Branagh’s consternation. With the cutting between several planes of focus (the land, the sea, the air, the men, the civilians, the officers) DUNKIRK becomes a sleek, sexy modern update of those tedious warhorses that boomed in the 60s and 70s. Films like THE LONGEST DAY, A BRIDGE TOO FAR, and TORA! TORA! TORA!, all of which have their interesting passages, but sacrifice cinema for text-book procedural.

I have a very strong suspicion that I will have forgotten most of this film in the coming weeks, much like INTERSTELLAR and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, both of which I know I saw and recall despising at the time, but cannot for the life of me conjure in my mind’s eye. At the very least, I kind of want to re-visit TDKR?