I thought it was going to be R. Apparently gruesome war violence is fine for PG-13. It's a rough watch at times, but I can see how this COULD be PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Christopher Nolan
I have been waiting to write this review for some time. I'm just getting it set up right now so I can show my new film students how to create a good review. Heavens to Betsy, I don't know how I'm going to keep up with my reviews now that the school year has started, but I'm sure I'll figure it out somehow. I saw this with my father-in-law. He's big into the whole military genre of books and movies. Normally, we can rally a whole bunch of guys to see a macho movie like this one, but we only had a happy four. The only disappointing thing about seeing this one was not seeing it on a fancy pants IMAX screen because this is a gorgeous movie.
The big pull for this movie is Christopher Nolan. War films are most often pretty impressive, especially in this day in age. There is a scope and grandeur to many of them and they kind of have to have that epic feel to them to sell them to a generation that doesn't psyche itself up to the war picture. Nolan, without a doubt, manages to generate a sense of scale to his war picture, but he adds his own unique feel to the film. I kept saying that he "Nolans" it up. If you are a fan of Nolan's work, especially outside of the Dark Knight trilogy, he tends to mess with the narrative, which makes the movies a bit more interesting. I always love a good headscratcher, especially when I know / feel that all of the pieces fit. I think the reason I don't lose my mind over Inception is because I'm still not sure that all of the pieces fit very well. But looking at movies like Memento and The Prestige, he has that knack for planning out these narratives that mess with the viewer. He seems to have a disdain for the casual watcher. His movies are entertaining, that is to be sure. But they reward patience and attention and Dunkirk is no exception. If I was a studio head, I know that I would have some concern for this movie. The story of the attack on Dunkirk has enough gravitas to succeed without necessarily having to add the extra element of narrative confusery. But since Nolan makes the movie work with the screwy narrative, it only adds more to the overall story. That normally isn't what works, but, by gosh, the guy is talented.
I mind as well get SPOILERY because there is a lot that I want to discuss. Can we talk about how the opening of the movie sets up the rest of the film perfectly? I keep coming back to the idea that this feels more like a horror movie and that is because the Germans are never actually shown on screen. There is one shot at the end where they are blurry in the background, but the shots are coming from nowhere. There is a frenetic nervousness for the characters. Characters in this film die without setup. Perhaps someone would complain about jump scares, but I think that's what war is really all about. It isn't the slow-moving death. It is about bullets coming out of places that the soldier doesn't expect. (Of course, I have no idea what it actually means to be a soldier, but what I said seems right and isn't that all that matters?) But I kept rooting for the fact that this movie wasn't showing me the bad guys in a movie about surviving bad guys. I actually got a little bummed that he had to resort to showing blurry Germans by the end of the movie. It made the Germans all that much scarier. Don't get me wrong, Nazis are scary. (Look how timely this review is!) But making them invisible, super-accurate Nazis makes it all the more terrifying. I don't want the movie to be about strategy or Churchill. I know that people were griping about that pretty hard in many of the reviews, but that's a different film that doesn't really need to be made over and over again. When talking about meeting or subverting expectations, I think the war genre needs a film or two to subvert expectations. Between this and Inglorious Basterds, it's nice to know that the genre isn't locked into its own conventions.
The protagonists of this movie are kind of shocking the more I think about them. These are characters that are normally considered despicable and disgusting. They are cowards. I kind of have to applaud Nolan for taking such a strong stance. As a film teacher, I've seen more than my fair share of war films. The coward is always disgusting and evil, concerned only with his own safety over those of his platoon. Culturally, we've been given the same line and it is understandable why we consider this person awful. But the protagonists in Dunkirk are scared for their lives. The two boys sneaking onto boats generate this odd amount of sympathy. I want these boys to screw the system and I'm not quite sure why. Perhaps it is the fact that I haven't seen a lot of movies where the situation is so hopeless. The movie establishes early on that the allies can't win this battle. At first, I thought that the narrative only carried through in one of the plots, but the movie also offers Cillian Murphy's character as a counterpoint to the boys. Cillian Murphy often plays unlikable characters, but this one is meant to be juxtaposed against the narrative of the boys sneaking onto boats, which is odd because Murphy actually has a reason to be so cowardly. Murphy's character is actually dealing with shell shock as opposed to the two boys who simply don't want to wait to die. I don't know necessarily what makes me like the two boys more. Perhaps it is the good that they do in the process of fleeing the Nazis. These moments seem arbitrary, but they develop the characters from the archetype of the coward into fully developed characters. Also, the boys are seeing fear all around them. Their fear is socially acceptable and natural. While they do morally questionable things (and I'm not excusing those things), they also bring focus and leadership to areas that desperately need leadership. Murphy's character is complicates the situation for the audience. He is an awful human being...in his shell shocked state. But Nolan does something really smart. Playing with his chronology, we have a flash of Murphy's character before the shell shock. He is a genuinely good man. He actually might be the most noble character in the movie, shy of Kenneth Brannagh. But these are the main characters.
I feel like I'm letting Tom Hardy down. His narrative is so awesome. There were times where I kept noticing that Hardy's narrative is exclusively about action, which I normally loathe. He's so good and the movie needs that moral character to make the story tellable. He's unabashedly the perfect soldier and his lack of interaction with the other characters makes the movie work. Again, Nolan's take on these characters and the way he plays with chronology give the story something to play with. It is so clever how that whole thing works and now I'm gushing. The story is great and I'm getting bored with writing this review.
Dunkirk really is something special. I can see why military film fans might give it a bit of crap, but the movie is great. It's not about Churchill, but neither is The Avengers. Deal with it.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.