Capsule Review: Dunkirk

Dunkirk 2017

As period war films go, this film hits all the right notes. The three stories that are juggled throughout meld together well. It seems most of the action-and we know how this story ends-is played to be heard solely through the mood-inducing soundtrack accompanying the action. The mood of the period piece, the drama inherent in the telling of a compelling story, and all the combined components therein conspire to be in sync with the masterly musical overtures heard throughout the film.

The stories include one depicting a couple of young men struggling to stay alive when faced with the enormity of the situation on the beach at Dunkirk. The second storyline is the Mark Rylance plot, the most compelling of the three. He is a local boatman with a son and his helper who brave the channel when the call comes out for rescue. The third story, which is probably the most disappointing and plebian of all, involves Tom Hardy’s flying spitfire squadron group who are tasked with protecting the evacuation from the sky. The dogfights and the tight shots of Hardy’s face are really the only dramatic plot points carried forward in these unremarkable segments.

The story of ordinary men braving the war is held together by Rylance’s performance, subtle, nuanced and most effective-as was the case in Bridge of Spies which earned him an Oscar nomination. The pop star status of Harry Styles is almost taken to parody, as you see Styles as just one of a vast sea of young men with similar faces all waiting for their fates to be decided in the theater of war. The struggle and the miracle of Dunkirk is only as compelling as the belief that ordinary men can do extraordinary things.

Tom Hardy, so movingly effective in the subtle nuance department ranging from The Drop to his role in Lawless, is here almost obliterated literally with a mask and what amounts to a cameo walk-on as a flyer who is seen in a series of cliched Top Gun-nish style shots from the cockpit. There is one reviewer pointing out that the director deliberately challenged Hardy by covering his features and giving him little to work with, but somehow that doesn’t make a lot of sense when you are watching the film.

The plots for all three stories do sync at some point, with the level of action ebbing and flowing accordingly. Kenneth Branagh is decently served as one of the English commanders who oversees the operation and tries to narrate the action in the finally satisfying denouement that is the culmination of the stories blended together. The point, as mentioned, of the miracle of Dunkirk is only realized if you can convey the scope and breadth of the undertaking that led these small boat owners and ordinary citizens to deliver a victory of sorts to the allies. Although very little time is spent on the actual logistics involved in this operation, the visuals are brought home in stark relief with gloriously monochromatic landscapes that fit the theme.

This film would probably not have worked as well with a lesser director, editor, cinematographer and musical score. That means in the final analysis- the film works well for what it is- a period drama that tells a compelling story with gifted actors, a masterful director, and all the other big-budget elements needed to advance the movie.

It is a moving story in many ways, and has much to lend to the short-range projects we often see projected in lights with CGI, with special effects and with space-age fantasy and plot elements. This is one for the ages-meaning the ages past and those with an appreciation of history. As movie making goes in the modern era, in Christopher Nolan’s case, one might say this was his Finest Hour.

Fury-Capsule Review

Fury 2014What’s the point of making what some critic referred to as a “B-movie about World War II” in this day and age? The acting is the best part of this film. Shia Labeouf does a credible job as does Brad Pitt in the suitably intense role of “Wardaddy”, the leader of a band of men fighting in a tank during the last days of the European combat theatre in WWII.

The point: Resolve on the part of the U.S.  And belief in finishing the job. So when assigned to hold an important road, the leader of the team doesn’t question authority nor does he shirk his duty. All of the important words: duty, honor, courage, and heroism in the face of insurmountable odds-all of these factors are in play here.

One of the stand-out scenes in this mostly by rote war film depicts Pitt/Wardaddy going into a civilian German apartment and simply sitting down and behaving as someone would who is on holiday. He is simply taking a break from war.

Although not quite as effective as, say Spielberg’s use of the child in the red coat inserted into the stark black and white film, ‘Schindler’s List’, this gives us a stark and vivid reminder that not everything in war is black and white. Sometimes the nuances we see or infer become the most memorable take-a-ways from a film.

In some parts of the action sequences, I remembered how my father, a World War II veteran himself, would speak of the way the United States was always depicted in a war film. The John Wayne Mythological hero was just that -a myth. While the Allies were basically a brave and honorable group of men, no one was above reproach when it came to the treatment of Prisoners of War on the battlefield.

This film reminds us that the bravery we see is still very real in times of war, and the morality, or lack of it is sometimes lost in the “fog of war”. It makes even the most moral and upright souls begin to question their humanity and at times, even the existence of God. If that’s not part of the message of this film, then perhaps it’s one that should be considered.

And perhaps the revival of the WWII soldier/ensemble movie will continue. Or maybe this is the last gasp of a dead genre-but for those who love action/adventure films, or war movies in general, this film should satisfy.