Dunkirk is a Great War Movie Marred by Christopher Nolan’s Usual Tricks

I saw Dunkirk in 9freevid, where the combination of size and a fat, square frame made even the panoramas seem like close-ups. Its opening is one of the most vivid shot I’ve ever seen.

In Dunkirk, a group of soldier moves warily along a street, away from the camera, surrounded by falling leaflets dropped from German planes calling for surrender. A moment later, all but one of them is dead. The survivor, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) identify himself as English, he moves past French defenses and onto the beach, where the Brits are queued up with characteristic patience. He wastes no time in picking up a stretcher and trying to get onto a medical boat carrying the wounded. A war movie opens with a sequence of a soldier fleeing from the battlefield.

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In Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan has made a movie so muddled by his signature “Nolan Time” – that arty temporal scramble that he thinks is more illuminating than it is. Briefly, Nolan Time consists of several parallel temporal lines that appear to be out of sync but prove, in the end, to conform to a Higher Synchronization — not the work of God or Fate but of steadfast individuals bravely exercising free will. My own free will is exercised by not falling in line with the many and vocal Nolanoids, but I’ll credit him in Dunkirk with getting many of the externals dead right.

His springboard is an event that happens to be one of the most triumphant military retreats in the history of the world. By the mid of 1940, the Nazis had swept across Europe and pushed at least a quarter-million Brits to the beaches of northern France, the edge of the continent, where characters in Dunkirk wishfully insist to see their country just across the channel, but it’s so ironic that no help from their country was in a near sight. By then, the Royal Navy had lost nearly 30 big ships, the Luftwaffe dominated the skies, and the waters teemed with U-boats. Churchill and company couldn’t afford to lose many more warships with the looming German invasion of the homeland.

Over his many films, Nolan has shown little talent for staging and editing action, but he’s marvelous at designing single shots, in this case the vertiginous plunges of planes and a series of terrifying beach bombardments. The explosions come in a line, moving toward a protagonist (and the camera) at near-precise intervals, all but vaporizing the next man over. Nevertheless, Nolan doesn’t need explicit carnage to make you feel the loss of life. The horror of death is reflected in the face of Kenneth Branagh as the naval commander who stations himself on a pier at the water’s edge watching his people dying. The movies seems to be narrative by Branagh’s story.

Although I find most of Nolan’s work can’t be digested, many intelligent people love his films with Nolan Time. I can’t not deny its unique despite of my hate of it. Nolan Time has the benefit of psyching audiences out, keeping them so busy trying to make linear sense of what they’re watching that they miss the obviousness of the plotting. I know people are going to talk about needing to go back and see the movies again since they know they miss something; but needing to rewatch something because you can’t make sense of it the first time isn’t exactly a testament to a director’s skills as a good storyteller.

What Nolan can do good with Dunkirk is making things go big. Spitfire swerving, boat tippings, men dropping to the sand as planes screaming by , but it doesn’t get the movie any better. That first shot of men on a street in a shower of paper on which their deaths are foretold is brilliant. Quite a shame that following up the great opening is the mess of terrific linear movie.

Dunkirk is a Great War Movie Marred by Christopher Nolan’s Usual Tricks
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