'Dunkirk' Is A Harrowing War Movie, Muddled By A Convoluted Timeline

Jul 21, 2017
Originally published on July 24, 2017 10:40 am
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The writer and director Christopher Nolan follows up his blockbuster sci-fi thriller "Interstellar" with "Dunkirk," his first historical war movie. Nolan's other films include "Insomnia," "Inception" and the "Dark Knight" trilogy. In "Dunkirk," Nolan dramatizes the 1940 allied retreat from the beaches of France as the Nazis closed in. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Christopher Nolan has made a harrowing war movie muddled by what I call Nolan time. Nolan time, also in "Inception" and "Interstellar," involves cutting among several locations in several timelines. Those lines appear to be out of sync but converge as the climax approaches. No one seems to believe there's a kind of synchronicity created when brave individuals exercise their will against hopeless odds. Does that sound hifalutin? Well, how else to account for this movie's weird structure?

Nolan's springboard is maybe the most triumphant military retreat of all time. In 1940, the Nazis had swept across Europe and pushed 400,000 mostly British troops to the beaches of Northern France, almost close enough, as the characters wishfully insist, to see England. What wasn't in sight was help. The German Luftwaffe dominated the skies. The waters teemed with U-boats. And the allied warships, among other things, couldn't get close enough to shore. I saw "Dunkirk" in IMAX, where the combination of size and a fat square frame made even the panoramas seem like close-ups. Nolan opens with soldiers moving warily along a Dunkirk street, away from the camera, surrounded by falling leaflets - warnings dropped from German planes to surrender or die.

A moment later, all but one is, in fact, dead. The survivor, played by Fionn Whitehead, makes his way to the beach, where Brits are queued up with characteristic patience. He wastes no time picking up a stretcher and trying to get on a medical boat, but that proves difficult. Here, Nolan and editor Lee Smith begin their crosscutting song and dance. In one timeline, Spitfire pilots Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden fly in to shoot down Luftwaffe planes, mindful in that ticking clock way of most thrillers of their limited fuel. Hardy wears an oxygen mask for most of his screen time. It seems a running joke directors insist on covering his great face.

On the English coast, meanwhile, we see the small pleasure boats that will prove vital to the rescue. A civilian played by Mark Rylance loads his boat with life vests aided by his son and son's friend. He could give the boat to the military but wants to make the run himself. Men my age dictate this war, he says. Why should we not fight it? In the water, he picks up Cillian Murphy as a shivering shell-shocked soldier perched on a plane part, a lucky rescue. Except going back to Dunkirk is the last thing this ravaged man wants to do.

Nolan often makes a hash of action scenes, but he's marvelous designing single shots, dizzying plane dives, terrifying beach bombardments, explosions moving towards the camera at near precise intervals. He omits the showers of gore so common in recent war films and he doesn't need them. The horror is reflected in the face of Kenneth Branagh as a naval commander who stations himself at the water's edge, watching men who are hideously vulnerable.

With all the cutting among timelines, we have a lot of narrative holes to fill, connections to make and characters to keep straight. Among them, one played by One Direction's Harry Styles. Tying the disparate scenes together is Hans Zimmer's spooky score, which keeps a churning beat while never resolving a chord. As the gray waves become more unruly, Nolan's vision of a cruel, implacable nature approaches real tragedy. The problem is when the narrative threads merge and cold fear is replaced by warm sap. The appearance of England's small boats is appropriately heart swelling, but Rylance's determination and Hardy's stoic resolve are another matter.

For all Nolan's modernist techniques, his cavalry-is-coming cliffhangers are eye-rollers and not well-edited, either. Nolan time has the benefit of psyching audiences out, keeping them so busy trying to make sense of what they're watching that they miss the obviousness of the plotting. What Nolan plus IMAX can do is go big - spitfires swerving, ships tipping, men dropping to the sand as planes scream by. It doesn't get more impressive. That first shot of soldiers on a street in a shower of paper on which their deaths are foretold - brilliant. Somewhere inside the convolutions of "Dunkirk" is a terrific linear movie.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

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BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, the frozen vault in the Arctic where 933,000 samples of crop varieties are preserved. We talk with Cary Fowler about creating the Global Seed Vault, where the world's biodiversity is protected in case of climate extremes, pests or war. His book is called "Seeds On Ice." Hope you can join us.

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