War of the Ancients
by ALEX CARNEVALE
dir. Christopher Nolan
Bane (Tom Hardy) is a fighter pilot during World War II. Having been soundly thrashed by the German forces, British and French troops, instead of making a final stand, decide to flee back to England in abject fear. In contemporary British military history, this is the biggest win Christopher Nolan (The Prestige) has on hand to glorify.
Nolan’s last decent movie was Inception, although watching it back is something of a chore. He took Batman very seriously, perhaps even more serious than Bruce Wayne did, but those movies are tough to watch now, too. Interstellar was an amusing mess, but it posed more questions than it answered. For example, what sort of actor does Nolan work well with? Why does Tom Hardy do the Bane voice in the loud torrent of moviegoing experience that is Dunkirk? And is it really necessary for Mr. Nolan to keep making movies that barely have women in them?
Dunkirk is supposed to be thrilling, if a bit exhausting to experience. Sitting through it feels substantially longer than the stated running time. The first thing it made me think of is the bravura sequence that opens The Revenant, where we are thrust in the naturalistic midst of a battle that surely seems not to be performance for our edutainment. At times, when Nolan gives over to some of that chaos, we feel some of that same sense of immersion, and war seems a terrible, random tragedy.
This is a fleeting feeling, however, since Mr. Nolan feels compelled to give us some semblance of a glimpse, but only that, into the mindset of these men. Their main driving emotion, across the board, is complete and utter fear. The only really determined member of the cast is Dawson (a particularly intolerable and affected Mark Rylance), who is a civilian slowly traipsing over to France in order to ferry soldiers back to England.
Substantially more charismatic is a British private played by newcomer Fionn Whitehead, who is only intent on getting off the dangerous beach. Meanwhile Bane flies a plane intent on providing cover for the evacuation. Tom Hardy does more acting with his eyes during these gorgeous sequences of flight than others do with their entire body.
Violence is naturally condemned by not having to suffer the indignity of identifying the perpetrators or their motives. Near the end of Dunkirk, we briefly see a few Nazis – just as quickly they are gone. I am not completely sure if their exclusion is a weird pardon or something, since the reason Hitler did not slaughter the Brits at Dunkirk was probably because his closest female friend was from that great country.
The best part of Dunkirk is the time dilation that Nolan thankfully does not overly explain. It means that the narrative jumps around in its chronology, and since there is not a whole lot of caring about the actual characters involved in this escape or a focus on the significance of their deaths, the only thing to do as a viewer is figure out why exactly Nolan opted for this approach. Given time, I couldn’t think of a reason other than to make abject war more interesting.
I saw Dunkirk in 70mm IMAX. The sound was completely overdone — there is such thing as overwhelming the senses, and another involving completely decimating the long-term hearing of your audience. Visually, if you compare it to films of ten years ago, it looks substantially better than all of them in this loud and oversized environment. But if you compare it to, say, the preview of Justice League, it appears rather restrained, a reserve that pushes Dunkirk into sheer forgettability. This indicates that Nolan is intent on straddling the line between action blockbuster and art film. I wish he would simply pick one.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.