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Front Page - Friday, July 28, 2017

Critic's Corner: ‘Dunkirk’ takes war drama to new level

Writer and director Christopher Nolan has a reputation for making weighty, ponderous films that strike a tenuous balance between their exploration of cerebral themes and big screen, blockbuster action. While he has experienced several creative and financial successes (“Memento,” “The Dark Knight,” “Insomnia”), his ambitions at times have exceeded his reach (“Interstellar”).

One of the things people cannot say about “Dunkirk,” Nolan’s new film covering the evacuation of English troops from the titular French city during the Second World War, is that it’s weighty and ponderous. Moreover, if anyone were to look for an underlying theme or try to extract something philosophical from the movie’s story, they would be laboring in vain.

Instead, Nolan has made a film about one thing: will the men he follows survive? There’s a moment near the beginning of the movie when two soldiers are carrying an injured party on a stretcher and must navigate a wet plank stretched across a broken bridge. If they fall, they’ll tumble into the ocean and their cargo will die. This scene is a microcosm of the larger film: can these men make it from point A to point B?

In stripping away every scrap of thematic complexity and focusing solely on the efforts of the characters to stay alive, Nolan gave himself an opportunity to rely on one of his greatest strengths: delivering tense, riveting cinematic spectacle. The result is a movie in which every frame exhibits the experience and skill of a filmmaker operating at the height of his craft.

“Dunkirk” contains three narrative threads covering different periods of time: one beginning on land that covers one week, one on the sea that covers one day and one in the air that covers one hour.

On land, “Dunkirk” follows the fictitious character of Tommy, a British private who comes under fire from German soldiers on the streets of Dunkirk. He makes it back to the beach, where British and Allied troops are preparing to evacuate.

Tommy and another soldier then come upon a wounded man who’s been left for dead and rush him on a stretcher to the front of the line, hoping to use him to evacuate ahead of the others. However, once they deliver the injured soldier, they’re turned away. Undeterred, they hide on the mole (the trestle that extends beyond the shore) in the hopes of sneaking aboard the next vessel.

On the sea, Nolan follows Mr. Dawson, the owner of a private boat commandeered by the Royal Navy to participate in the evacuation. Rather than let a navy crew take his boat, Dawson, his son and their hired hand take her out themselves.

They soon encounter a shell-shocked soldier on the wreck of his ship and take him aboard. When the soldier discovers that Dawson is sailing toward Dunkirk rather than taking them to England, he tries to seize control of the boat.

In the air, viewers join three Spitfire pilots who are crossing the English Channel to provide air support for the troops waiting on the shore. After a Luftwaffe plane shoots down the squadron leader, a pilot named Farrier (played by Tom Brady, a Nolan staple) assumes command of the duo as they continue toward France.

One of the most impressive aspects of “Dunkirk” is the mathematical precision with which Nolan interlaces these storylines into a nonlinear narrative. Not a single shot or line of dialogue is wasted; rather, every image, sound and action is calculated to tell the story and move it forward.

This remarkable narrative efficiency can be seen in a scene in which a frustrated private, who is tired of standing on the shore like a sitting duck, shouts, “Where’s the bloody Air Force?” Soon after, we learn from a brief conversation between commanding officers that Churchill hopes to save only 35,000 of the 400,000 troops gathered on the beach. With just a little dialogue and no music to punctuate the moment, Nolan provides a chilling wartime detail that sets the stage for the difficulties to come.

While I enjoyed the elegance of the script, the thing that will draw me back to the theater to see “Dunkirk” again are the aerial battles. In a word, they’re spectacular.

Recall that there are only a few planes in the sky. This is true of every skirmish. War movies often try to stuff the screen with troops, boats, planes and tanks, hoping to wow viewers with the epic nature of battle. But Nolan goes in the opposite direction.

Using IMAX cameras rigged to planes to capture the enormity of the space around the combatants, Nolan shot some truly jaw-dropping footage. In several acts of sheer filmmaking bravado, the director filmed actual spitfires performing the stunts, outfitted planes with an extra cockpit to allow filming the pilots in-flight and sent large scale model aircraft diving toward the English Channel for the crash sequences.

While the aerial combat provides the film’s most impressive moments, there are smaller scenes that have nearly as much impact, including one in which dozens of privates who believe themselves to be safely tucked away in the hold of a ship suddenly find themselves underwater following a torpedo attack. Nolan’s quick cut from a soldier biting into a piece of jam-covered bread to him being submerged in water is jarring.

If you take one thing away from this review, I hope it’s that you’ll see “Dunkirk.”

It’s an extraordinary movie. If you take away a second thing, let it be that you need to seek out the largest possible screen for your viewing. (If you can, see it on a true IMAX screen. The experience will be immersive in a way few films are.)

With “Dunkirk,” one of today’s most talented filmmakers shows that his reach has extended to match his ambitions. To see an already accomplished director mature in this way is exciting and portends good things for the future of cinema.

4 stars out of 4