Dunkirk ★★★★

If the Marvel Studio films are "theme park rides," as Martin Scorsese claims, then Dunkirk has to be included in that category, too. In terms of Christopher Nolan's career, that's an especially uncharacteristic development. To a one, Nolan's work generally features some kind of puzzle box mystery or Shakespearean drama (in the case of his Batman trilogy), but here he eschews narrative and character almost entirely in favor of tense, episodic set pieces; the ensemble of protagonists are less layered personalities than fleshy avatars for the audience to impart themselves onto. Were those hollow shells not surrounded by truly awe inspiring Classic Hollywood style spectacle (something only an acclaimed auteur like Nolan can gain the budget and clearance to get away with nowadays), the film would be far less riveting. The electricity of the early beach sequences and airplane dog fights comes not from empathy for the characters, but an Intolerance and Hell's Angels energy, where the effort taken to acquire the footage overwhelms the audience.

There have been claims of maudlin jingoism directed at Dunkirk, which I understand (Hans Zimmer's score definitely swells with manufactured emotion at times), but also find incomplete. Nolan and Hoyte Van Hoytema keep the camera wide here, making this a story about masses of bodies getting whittled down to smaller and smaller units (much like the opening scene foreshadows). Rather than idealized heroism or self-sacrifice, Nolan foregrounds the feverish fear of self-preservation that grips most people in life-or-death situations. Because of their uniforms and ink black hair, the soldiers in The Mole portion of the film are often indistinguishable, seemingly meant to visualize the disposability that comes with serving in any government's military; any soldier could die and be replaced by another without notice.

Championed as heroes by their fellow citizens and the government, the final cut of the film (the rousing music drops out and all we're left with is the uncertain expression of Fionn Whitehead's Tommy) brings any mythologizing into question. The country and the military brass may want to portray these men as brave, selfless fighters to uphold moral, but they experienced the opposite: a scramble over one another for survival. Had their government not put them in that position, they may not have had to suffer that trauma.

|Personal Ranking of the Sections|
1. The Air
2. The Mole
3. The Sea

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