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Dunkirk

by Glenn Erickson Dec 19, 2017

 

A huge summer hit and a righteous blow struck for positive, non-comic book entertainment, Christopher Nolan’s account of a WW2 crisis is a major war picture with amazing, full-scale visuals that we are told were only slightly augmented with CGI effects. Hallelujah.


Dunkirk
Blu-ray + Digital + 4K Ultra HD
Warner Home Video
2017 / Color / 2.20:1; 1:78 (IMAX scenes) / 106 min. / Street Date December 18, 2017 / available through the WBshop / 44.95
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Barry Keoghan, Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney, Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, James D’Arcy.
Cinematography: Hoyte Van Hotyema
Film Editor: Lee Smith
Production Design: Nathan Crowley
Original Music: Hans Zimmer
Produced by Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas
Written and Directed by
Christopher Nolan

 

Scenes of REAL action, filmed with a REAL camera, do make a difference: audiences respond differently, and become more involved.

When it comes to war movies the public is fickle: they want war combat to be as fun as any other action genre. Audiences generally reject pictures about depressing campaigns or with feel-bad endings. The critics love some downbeat pictures (Overlord, Gallipoli) and like others less (Tora! Tora! Tora!,  Zulu Dawn) but audiences prefer their heroes to come up smiling at the end, as if war were a sporting event. At one end of the pandering commercial solution are feel-good historical abominations like Pearl Harbor, but even serious pictures mix horror and cornball war movie clichés, preferably with a heart tug to shed a tear for our cherished veterans. Forget poetry or philosophy; Terrence Malick’s stunning The Thin Red Line is a combat classic that really divided the public. George C. Scott’s General Patton would have classified its poetic vision as ‘for men who don’t know anything about fornicating.’

Christopher Nolan makes smart, interesting movies, routinely overcoming iffy script notions with excellent direction and overwhelmingly assured technical finesse. His Dunkirk pulls off a mighty slick trick: a war picture that’s all first-person sensation. It sticks so closely to a you-are-there-as-it-happens naturalism, that we can’t help but be sucked into the narrative’s multiple jeopardies. Lastly, he avoids scenes where important men deliver grim speeches. Although they aren’t combat pictures, both of this years’ movies about Winston Churchill do almost nothing but deliver speeches.

The panic evacuation of Dunkirk was a low point of the war for England, but also a triumph in which fast thinking and communal action saved that nation’s ability to continue fighting. It’s definitely not the shameful disaster of Operation Market Garden, as depicted in A Bridge Too Far, the kind of ghastly failure that makes one want to put a bunch of windbag generals in front of a firing squad. Nolan’s screenplay sticks closely to the first-person experience of just a few frantic participants in the emergency retreat. His oddly-structured story intercuts three ‘mini stories,’ which isn’t unusual. But the way the movie spaces them out in time sequence is most unusual. It might not even make literal sense yet is not a problem at all.

 

Christopher Nolan prefers to shoot on film, especially in large-screen IMAX. The buzz to see Dunkirk last summer was mostly based on the news that most of it was going to be in that giant format . . . and that very few computer effects were utilized. Almost everything we see was staged for real before a camera.

The storyline is simple enough. The Germans have overwhelmed the French and English defenders of France, and 350,000 British troops are in danger of being driven into the sea at Dunkirk. ‘On The Mole (one week)’, rifleman Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), coming late to the beach, grabs a wounded man on a stretcher, and with another soldier who does not speak, Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), tries to jump the line to board the solitary Red Cross vessel evacuating servicemen. It doesn’t work, and Tommy and Gibson spend an eternity trying to get underway. The large ships docking at the one available sea wall, called The Mole, are being sunk by Stuka Dive bombers, and U-boats await them as soon as they depart. Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) projects confidence atop The Mole, but he doesn’t see how more than 30,000 soldiers can be rescued before the Germans capture the rest.

‘On the Sea (one day)’, small boat owner Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) in Weymouth has already lost a son, a pilot. Wanting to do his bit for the war effort, he doesn’t wait for the Navy to commandeer his boat Moonstone to rescue soldiers from the war zone. With his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a young friend George (Barry Keoghan), he joins the flotilla of 850 small private craft getting under way to cross the channel. Just to reach Dunkirk, the Moonstone must run a gauntlet of attacks from the air. They stop to pick up a ‘shivering soldier’ (Cillian Murphy) clinging to a capsized ship. Suffering from shell shock, the soldier becomes violent when told that they’re not going straight back to England.

‘In the Sky (one hour)’, a flight of three Spitfire fighter planes will have only one hour of combat time over Dunkirk. One is shot down. The other planes piloted by Farrier (Tom Hardy of Mad Max Fury Road) and his wing man Collins (Jack Lowden) are outnumbered by Luftwaffe Messerschmitts. They engage in dogfights while trying to shoot down the light Heinkel bombers that are picking off ships evacuating the troops.

Tommy joins a couple of others determined to find a way off the beach by hook or crook. Their attempts keep failing. Ships packed with the wounded are torpedoed and sink in barely a minute or two, with great loss of life. Few ships or planes have been committed to the evacuation because they’ll be needed to repel the anticipated invasion. But if the men on the beach are captured, there won’t be much of an army left to defend England.

Dunkirk is a ‘how we won the war’ movie, made for an audience that considers WW2 to be ancient history. It’s tense and exciting from one end to the other. There are no storytelling crutches, and no lengthy talking scenes. Instead of expostulating on larger strategies, the ranking commander simply worries that the sinking of a single vessel could jam the only useable dock, making evacuation with large ships impossible. The story never lags — we keep jumping back and forth between the three busy storylines — bombings on the beach, hazards in the channel crossing, dogfights in the sky.

 

By narrowing his scope down to the immediate experiences of those involved, Christopher Nolan jettisons all the usual baloney of war pictures. We see the flags, but none are showcased to make patriotic statements. There is no love interest — we see a couple of nurses along the way and that’s it. If anybody has a back story, it’s just a fact or two slipped into the conversation. Mr. Dawson only mentions his lost son when he explains to a downed pilot how he knew how to evade an enemy plane on a strafing run. The Commander has to repeat the facts about the tides, about which even the army officers are completely misinformed.

The movie is all first-person ‘coping with immediate problems.’ Without a constant stream of dumbed-down exposition, the viewer must pay attention to a story being told visually. Tommy wisely takes nothing for granted. When he finally sneaks onto a ship and gets a hot pastry to eat, he keeps one eye on the exit. He knows that if the ship sinks, there will be no way that the 200 men with him in the stateroom will be able to get out. We figure this out for ourselves, at the same time Tommy does.

Dunkirk doesn’t have to use clever cutting and VFX to ‘create’ impressions of actions: most of what we see is really happening.

Christopher Nolan sticks to a plan that I really respect, because I think it works: all the camera angles represent either the POV of people in the scene, or are angles that a combat cameraman might have taken. Nolan doesn’t try to impress us with acrobatic master shots or showoff extended takes. On the sea, we stay close with Mr. Dawson’s little boat instead of constantly jumping from one craft to another. In the air, we watch the pilots close up and experience things directly from their point of view. If they don’t see their comrade shot down, we don’t see it either. There are no ridiculous video game thread-the-needle flying shots, as in Pearl Harbor. Also no ‘gimmick’ shots, like the impossible zoom from infinity to a pilot’s eyeball that cheapens Scorsese’s The Aviator. Dunkirk is just straight coverage of coherent action, one shot after another. If Tommy is dumped into an ocean in flames, we’re there underwater with him, trying to avoid being burned. On the Moonstone Mr. Dawson and his son Peter don’t discuss the way things are getting out of hand — all they have to do is exchange quick glances. How many action movies have we seen where people are constantly shouting out obvious facts (‘Let’s get out of here’) for the audience’s benefit? To some degree they’re really radio shows.

Dunkirk is exciting yet non-hyped historical war action, respectful of the reality of the past. It’s thrilling to see a real plane sharing a film frame with a real ship, etc. — there’s none of the lazy clutter-layering of a George Lucas movie, that simply crams extra ‘stuff’ into shots after the fact, until visual overkill is attained.

Dunkirk was a panic but never a full-on rout — the Army never stopped functioning as an army. Individual actions are both noble and craven. Even as men are taking inordinate risks to help each other, French soldiers are excluded from the evacuation queues. When survival seems unlikely even some Brit soldiers begin to discriminate against each other by unit, Grenadiers vs. Highlanders. Dunkirk righteously asserts that anybody who steps into harm’s way to aid his country can be called a hero, no matter how small his contribution turns out to be.

 

Today’s action movies have become super-animated cartoons, substituting sophisticated computer modeling for drawings on cels. By and large, the ships, boats and airplanes we see here are all real. As in George Miller’s Mad Max Fury Road, digital enhancements are kept to a minimum. Some ‘sweeteners’ are likely added, but the basic shot of a plane zooming by, or a boat banging against a dock, is a live action setup with a real camera. There’s no substitute for the tactile sense of things really happening in a real environment.

The use of real full-scale warships was once a given in old-time combat spectacles. Some of the planes on view are the same collectors’ aircraft flown 48 years ago in the all-star epic The Battle of Britain. If my sources are correct, Nolan also revisited a technique pioneered in that movie, the use of radio control miniatures, for shots of fighter planes seen blowing up or crashing.

I also like the director’s avoidance of show-off techniques that take attention away from the large-scale action. To tell the truth, the editing and directing are rather old fashioned, scaled to the human perceptions of the characters on screen. Nolan uses only three or four actors I recognized, but they’re so subordinated to the story that you can’t even call them an ensemble. Yet for this picture, Nolan’s judgment calls consistently make things better. He’s not trying to ‘blow our minds’ with big effects, as the scale of the destruction and jeopardy does that on its own. The result is a gripping audience-identification experience.

Multiple Oversize Film Formats, Wow: 65mm is like editing bookmarks, and IMAX is like editing postcards.

I’m playing catch-up with Christopher Nolan’s innovative film format games. For a decade or so modern ‘event’ pictures have been experimenting with special big film format sequences, and Nolan has led the wave with variable-format presentations. It isn’t just to allow exhibitors to charge more money for a part-IMAX experience. A stickler for shooting on film only, Nolan here alternates between standard 65mm and full-frame IMAX. But Dunkirk is 70% IMAX footage. In general, the switches are between big exteriors and more intimate dialogue scenes. It adds up to a successful application of earlier multi-format ideas, like Abel Gance’s mostly theoretical Polyvision: the notion of changing the screen shape to suit the subject matter of individual scenes.

 

I’m told that on theater screens the IMAX images were displayed full height, about 1:43 to 1. Whenever Dunkirk shifted between film gauges, the contrast in size & scope must have been awesome, slamming the viewer in the head with each new cut back to big-scale IMAX. On home video one can still see the aspect ratio shift, but it isn’t as extreme. The screen shape frequently jumps between 2.20:1 (65mm) and 1.78:1 (IMAX).

Paging film theorists: It’s D.W. Griffith’s notion of Parallel Action Cutting, taken to a new, temporally plastic extreme.

A final angle on Dunkirk’s style is one that I find especially interesting, the cutting between its three separate actions. The film’s timeline breaks all the rules — actions that appear to be happening simultaneously, can’t possibly be simultaneous. If the story of ‘The Mole’ takes one week, as indicated by the on-screen title, Tommy arrives three days into the ten day evacuation of Dunkirk beach. We don’t know when exactly Mr. Dawson leaves Weymouth, but we know that Farrier and Collins must take to the sky much later, as Weymouth is a full 250 miles from Dunkirk. When the three planes over-fly the Moonstone, they must be very near the Dunkirk beach. Yet when (spoiler) Collins is shot down, Dawson is there to pick him up, and Dawson is there to rescue men in the water from the oil fire started by Farrier’s shoot-down of the Stuka. The picture parallel-cuts actions that can’t be happening at the same time. At one juncture we’re intercutting the nighttime sinking of a ship, with the progress of the Moonstone in broad daylight.

Here’s what I think is going on. Instead of dragging the movie out through a full ten day ordeal, as an average war picture would do, Christopher Nolan has collapsed time and events in a way that nears abstraction. Nolan apparently skips the first leg of Mr. Dawson’s voyage from Weymouth to Dover, where he likely refueled before joining the rescue flotilla. Farrier and Collins’ fateful flight must all occur at the peak of the evacuation, when the civilian flotilla arrives.

The central set-piece that includes the Moonstone’s rescue of Collins, the sinking of a ship, Farrier shooting down the Heinkel and the sea catching on fire, is repeated at least three times from different points of view — almost like the racetrack robbery in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. After the Dutch trawler is seen foundering next to the capsizing warship, the next scene cuts back to a much earlier time frame, when the same Dutch trawler is still grounded on the beach, waiting for the incoming tide. In the most curious bit of time-stretching, Farrier’s plane runs out of fuel and appears to glide indefinitely. In broad daylight, he succeeds in shooting down a Stuka even when he has no power … and when he glides to a landing on the beach, it is sunset, and the British part of the evacuation is complete. Although everything we see is satisfying, nothing adds up for time and distance. Nolan has expressed the essence of the Dunkirk experience by making the time sequence plastic. Did many viewers even notice this?

Christopher Nolan’s abandonment of literal time sequencing skips dull material, and ‘spaces out’ exciting climaxes that, if shown literally, would all be happening at the same time. It doesn’t worry about temporal realism any more than does Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad. I didn’t hear that much discussion of this, certainly not from movie patrons. And I only found one review that even noted the eccentric parallel cutting pattern, in The New Yorker. With all the other ‘unrealistic’ effects created through editing, why can’t a narrative be stylized with oddly sequenced time jumps, if doing so doesn’t cause the story to break down? I didn’t hear of anybody being confused or offended — this is a very satisfying show.

Actually, in the weeks after Dunkirk some naysayers did speak up, but on other subjects. Some questioned the role of the ‘little ships’ as something of a historical myth — they helped mostly to ferry men off the beach to larger ships, is the charge. And other critics leaped in to ask why the film did not represent the many Indian and African troops with the evacuees.


 

The Warner Home Video two-disc Blu-ray + Digital + Ultra HD of Dunkirk is quite a package. The same audiences that were indifferent to Quentin Tarantino’s 65mm The Hateful Eight raved about the big-format theatrical experience for Dunkirk. The Ultra HD disc delivers a similar kick — more contrast and more color range than one would think possible on a ‘home TV’ screen. UHD fans equipped with the expensive players and larger 4K-ready monitors and projectors will flip out at the detail, which renders inky blacks as a ‘readable’ gradient, while bright light sources seem penetrating. Dunkirk isn’t given a washed out monochrome look, so we notice when those colors jump out as well — the markings on the planes, the weave and texture of the surfaces and fabrics we see.

[Correspondent Gary Teetzel works with the new formats, and offered this further bit of info about UHD: “The extra kick of Ultra HD is thanks to the HDR (high dynamic range) ballyhooed on the cover. Without HDR, UHD often doesn’t look much better than HD, but HDR makes things really ‘pop’ with its increased contrast range and color gamut. There are basically two types of HDR: DolbyVision and HDR-10. I believe most UHD discs use HDR-10; if the packaging makes no mention of DolbyVision, it’s HDR-10.”]

Hans Zimmer’s music accompanies the action with tension devices, throbbing noises and groans like engines turning, or a giant clock ticking a countdown until the Germans break through. It’s very effective.

The deluxe disc package (the one offered for review) presents the show in both formats, a second Blu-ray with the extras, plus a digital copy. A two Blu-ray + DVD set is offered, and a standalone DVD. Both the UHD and Blu-ray discs do the jumping-between-aspect-ratios bit, which might be noticed at first because we’re so intent on watching the movie.

With its own disc, the featurette package is two hours long, longer than the feature. The 16 pieces really comprise one long making-of documentary, with the final two entries even named ‘conclusion.’ It’s perhaps the most interesting ‘making-of’ for a studio feature I’ve ever seen. The amount of preparation, fabrication and experimentation to pull off the technical challenges are staggering. We learn that almost everything was done live-action, and even the cheated shots — parts of planes and boats specially rigged to sink, etc. — are so ingenious as to make one want to applaud. We get a close look at all the restored war materiel, boats, camera rigs, everything. Seriously, just the section on camera mounts is fascinating. Nolan’s experts created camera mounts that enabled him to get precise IMAX shots in all kinds of conditions, even during rough scenes.

We learn that Nolan shot everything on all of the real locations. The beautiful harbor at Weymouth looks just like it did back in Joseph Losey’s 1961 These Are The Damned. Dunkirk is really Dunkirk, and Nolan purposely chose to film in inclement weather. The uninviting swells on the ocean make us recall that not many of the working-class soldiers on that beach had little experience with swimming.

An added item is a brief plug for the Coast Guard, which helped film scenes on the California coastline. Finally, it’s worth noting that the Dunkirk package is friendly to hearing-impaired viewers. The making-of documentary is given the same set of multiple language subtitle options: English, French Spanish

The top-end Dunkirk UHD may be a pricey item for the home video caviar set, but one can’t complain about the experience delivered: it feels like watching the movie in a professional setup. Perhaps UHD can be compared to the Laserdiscs of the 1990s: fancy stuff for collectors and the home theater carriage trade. Warners also offers Ultra HD releases for Nolan’s Inception as well as at least two of his Batman movies, plus a whopping seven-movie “Christopher Nolan Collection” on UHD with all of his big hits, including Dunkirk. I’m not going to pout and feel like a peasant because I can’t see everything in Ultra HD, but for the moment it’s certainly an extra thrill for home video.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson



Dunkirk Blu-ray + DigitalUltra HD rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent English, French, Spanish
Supplements: 2-hour, 17-part making of featurette/documentary.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese
Packaging: 1 UHD and three Blu-ray discs in keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed: December 18, 2017
(5610dunk)

Final product for this review was provided free by Warner Home Video. CINESAVANT

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.