A casual note on Dunkirk

The following is part of a private exchange with someone. I am just reproducing my contribution. I’ve expanded a bit at points for the purposes of this post. However I haven’t done too much in this regard even though I was tempted to at points. Doing more would have required a longer, much more formal piece and I didn’t quite have the motivation to do this. This remains a very spontaneous, impressionistic response to the film.

On [Dunkirk] lacking a certain emotional resonance I think some of this is borne out of Nolan’s explicit intentions. I appreciate the degree to which Nolan is trying to present this sort of subject in a certain thriller/adventure format, or the extent to which he localizes the action completely and therefore represents more authentically the actual experience of war (obviously people in those situations are hardly thinking Churchill and Hitler! they are just totally in the moment, trying to survive). But this achievement (and it’s a formidable one) comes at a cost. If you remove the ‘transcendence’ element of war narratives you might have a gripping film but not one that has deeper echoes.

Put differently you can do a thriller like Where Eagles Dare or Guns of Navarone where the ‘war’ is simply background and not meant to be taken more seriously than this. The real deal is then the thriller with its own characters and dramatic arcs and so on. Or you have the Pearl Harbor (excuse me for bringing up this film here!) kind of deal, where war just becomes the ultimate dramatic twist in otherwise very human (love) stories. So many Indian movies do this as well. The war in turn re-orients the conflicts of the central relationship in a more ‘epic’ key. But whether it’s the classic Hollywood war film or something more recent like Saving Private Ryan or whatever all these efforts always keep the transcendence of WWII (or whichever war it is) alive. So whatever happens in the film, it always means something more. Usually it’s a legendary battle but it is also linked to that larger narrative frame of the ‘greater war’. Here Nolan does the opposite. In a way he de-essentalizes things completely (at least till that final train sequence) and takes out all the ‘fat’ associated with the genre. It’s a very interesting experiment but it’s hard for his film to mean a great deal without some sense of that war’s greater transcendence. Now in a way one could argue that not every war film goes through all the ‘out of theater’ planning or depicts those characters and so on. However in Saving Private Ryan (to take up again the same example) Spielberg uses a very traditional narrative, a central all-American hero with his existential moments etc. Normandy is already famous but then Spielberg presents everything in a very novelistic way. And most war movies do this. On the one hand you have characters , sub-plots climaxing into war which then resolves the central tensions of those relationships (everything from romantic entanglements to coming of age themes). On the other you have the ‘war is hell’ motif. In this instance there’s typically a focus on the actual terrain of the war zone coupled with a near-classical display of masculine valor. Often the horror of these situations is meant to suggest either the futility of war with the human nonetheless heroically battling on in a ‘fated’ sense or else it becomes the excuse for a personal journey with even some New Age mysticism added to the mix. Even the greatest directors from Coppola to Kubrick to Malick have not been able to avoid this matrix. But it’s precisely all of these treatments that Nolan wishes to resist and his ambition in this sense must be lauded. But I think he does so ultimately think with mixed results. And here your Interstellar point is exactly the right one. Not that the subjects are the same but Interstellar too depends on a degree of transcendence. Without it the film would lack meaning. Perhaps the film is clunky at moments but it always strikes the right emotional chord. I’m certainly not arguing that I always look for this in cinema but a war narrative is so much about the humans who participate in it that to make them somewhat incidental characters (even if Nolan clearly sticks with a few in effective ways.. you hardly see Hardy’s face till the end and he’s very much a presence) in an overall otherwise extremely well-shot ‘choreography’ is a problematic move. For his editing choices and his visual artistry in general here I could probably watch the film again relatively easily. And again as you’ve suggested it’s probably enormously more impressive in the right format (IMAX 70MM as opposed to the 70MM I had to opt for). But that lack of transcendence prevents it from being a ‘great’ film. Or in other words too much greater than the sum of its formal accomplishments.

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26 Responses to “A casual note on Dunkirk”

  1. Great review.

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  2. Interesting note. A guy in my office I overheard absolutely loved the film.

    I personally love how Nolan took a kids comic book superhero like Batman but made it into a very adult film without losing the comic book. Those 60’s Batman TV series were fun and Nicholson’s joker was a hoot but that remarkable skill in his Batman trilogy of balancing the child and adult but making it seriously good and clever was stunning. Not that rubbish of Batman’s 2-4 in the 90’s.

    I’m not going to get a chance to watch this I reckon.

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      • I did watch X men days of future past and it was way better than a lot of the earlier superhero 2000’s movies. The genre has effectively lost my interest as Nolan took it to a level that I doubt it can go to again. He understood Batman like no-one before. Even the city Gotham ‘sounds’ like a graveyard for scum. The mood was so precise unlike the earlier ‘funny’ cues.

        I would love Nolan or anyone of serious calibre to do a trilogy of WW2. 20’s history is so important in creating that bleak world view that Hitler capitalised on. It’s so rich and recent – a much more interesting war than WW1. British TV on these wars in comedy format like Dad’s Army and specifically Blackadder are great. I love WW2 as we are the last connecting generation to grandparents who may recall that time. The next generation won’t see it as emotionally.

        Everything from 1918 to 1939 is a huge backdrop to what happens in September 1939. Even thinking about such a trilogy gets me excited.

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    • Re: “I personally love how Nolan took a kids comic book superhero like Batman but made it into a very adult film without losing the comic book.”

      I would argue that isn’t a Nolan innovation, in that he builds upon a long line of Batman comic book writers and artists over the last three decades. Those films are damn good, among the best superhero films ever made, but they haven’t held up as splendidly for me in retrospect, likely because Nolan does drain the “fun” element (stated differently, the best superhero films maintain fun without lapsing into self-parody — “Batman Begins” has that, in particular thanks Cilian Murphy’s Scarecrow-to-be character, but the other two, not so much; “Wonder Woman” is an excellent counter-example, of a serious superhero film, epic in scale and sweep, but one that doesn’t take itself too seriously).

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      • But he did translate it first I’d argue. The 90’s stuff is fun at best. An extension of the ‘pow pow’ 60’s. Cesar Romero was quite perverse on TV but TV could only stretch it so far. I like that Nolan dared to create a monster Joker of sorts who’d personify the ugly world we live in.

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      • yes Batman begins has always been my favorite in Nolan’s trilogy.

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  3. Great review…will definitely be watching this one. No matter how flawed, Nolan’s cinema is always interesting.

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    • On Indian soldiers, that was one thing I really appreciated about Wonder Woman: in a number of the war sequences (especially when we see soldiers milling around London) Indian soldiers are very noticeable — historically accurate, of course, whether we are talking about WWII (the setting for the first Wonder Woman comics) or WWI (the setting for this film).

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  4. Interesting note — I must confess I haven’t quite been “in the mood” for this film, although I know it has to be seen, and on the biggest of screens…

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  5. My favorite Nolans in some order are.. Batman Begins, Interstellar, the Prestige and possibly Insomnia.

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    • Like the Batman trilogy and specially how they take themselves so seriously despite the genre. But his best works are probably Interstellar and Prestige. Prestige was a little gem of a film.

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      • My personal fav is “The Prestige” by far. Even Nolan himself said he stretched himself as pure story teller with the complex narrative and it is one which I can watch over and over again which I do.

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        • Prestige is not just nonlinear storytelling and story-inside-story at its best, but the characterizations are also very nuanced. Every time I revisit this film, I discover some subtle hints about which of the twins we are actually watching at a certain point of time.

          And Jackman is at his charming best in this film. Its a pity that Nolan has not repeated him in any other film, which he usually does with other actors.

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  6. Have read nothing of your comment Satyam..sorry..too sozzled: But yes, I watched DUNKIRK today and though not mightily impressed, have to give it to NOLAN to come up with a literally unique take on war-time stories…

    This, bloody-hell, turned out to be a war-time musical for me: And I have to commend Nolan for following his vision. It will go down as a unique film, but not universally liked..

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