20 August 2017

Stuck And Running From The Bullets

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Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk begins with a soldier frantically trying to find a spot on the beach in which he can take a dump. Or maybe, he was just ticking off things he could do from his bucket list and having a literal shit on France was one of them. And who even knew this movie would be set in France at all? You'd think there would be a clue in the title but a few years ago a friend of mine let slip that he thought Dunkirk was actually a place in Scotland. After initially making fun of him for this lapse in his general knowledge, it quickly became annoyingly apparent that Dunkirk may actually be the most Scottish sounding word I've ever heard in my entire fucking life. When the English soldiers were stuck and desperate on the beach at the start of this film I genuinely had to keep reminding myself that it wasn't going to end with Mel Gibson riding over the hill, face painted blue and screaming for fucking 'Freedom!!!”

Unsurprisingly, Dunkirk tells the story of Dunkirk where hundreds of thousands of British soldiers were trapped on the beach and completely surrounded by Germans. Obviously, this was during World War 2 although I'm sure much more violent battles have since been fought there as each side attempts to get their beach towel down before the other. Being from such a visionary director, it's worth noting that the story is told from the three different perspectives of air, sea, and land... the crappy tribute band to 'Boogie Wonderland's' Earth, Wind, And Fire. Tom Hardy plays an RAF pilot heading over from Britain, Mark Rylance is one of the many civilian boat owners that sailed over to rescue the stranded soldiers, and the soldiers are mostly played by young unknown actors. One of them is apparently the super famous Harry Styles of whom I have very little knowledge beyond the fact that the One Direction I associate him with is the one moving in the opposite direction to my own CD collection. He seems like a pretty good actor though so anybody worried about him being here needs to remember that Nolan is a director with an amazing reputation and not the reincarnated flesh-husk of a horny teenaged girl.

Being a Nolan film, it may also come as no surprise to find out that these three segments play with time in the same way as most of his previous work. Like the various layers of dreams in his Inception, the three different segments play out over three separate durations ranging from a week to a day and an hour, and yet we experience them all happening simultaneously. Except unlike in Inception, this is about people being stuck in France and so is actually less like a dream and more like a fucking nightmare. Unusually for Nolan however, the running time of Dunkirk is less than two hours long which is at least a couple of days shorter than most of his other movies. This is because, despite the setting, the film is less of a war film and more of a thriller. By having the events compacted and the duration relatively short, the entire film essentially plays out like one giant set-piece that couldn't be tighter or tenser if it was a choir boy being told that he has to “stay behind to kiss the Bishop on the ring”.

If Dunkirk were to be considered a war film however then I'd have to say that it must be one of the most cliché-free war films of all time. There's no soldier writing to his girlfriend, the overly strict officer doesn't become a soppy prick during a key moment, and the soundtrack doesn't feature either The Doors or Vera fucking Lynn. In fact, there's not even a main character in this movie and the Nazis are only seen very briefly and without close-up. Nor is there any real sense of nationalism in the way that most American war films will end with a shot of their flag waving in the wind, a veteran saluting it, and then an eagle flying past with a solitary tear running down its beak. This is lucky because being English and cynical, the only bit of nationalism and flag-waving that I can get on board with is in taking the piss out of the French, and even then I'm not sure why we pretend to hate them. Probably because the worst they'll do in retaliation is surrender.

That's not to say however that the film doesn't highlight the work done by the British during The War, it's just that it does it in the most British way possible. Being from England, the second World War is something that still looms large in our culture with grandparents and great grandparents having experienced it first hand. It's always, therefore, seemed a bit odd to me that pretty much every major World War 2 film features a predominately American cast and so perhaps that's something else that this movie does to avoid cliché. In the words of Christopher Nolan, he's telling “a very English story but with an American budget”. Here there are no moments of glory but simply the 'stiff upper lip' stoicism of people doing their job. When Tom Hardy is flying his spitfire towards the enemy fighter, it honestly wouldn't have looked out of place if he'd had a pot of tea behind him with the fight mostly being a way of him killing time as he let it brew.

The other intention of the film seems to be to give one of the most immersive cinematic experiences of all time. Want to know what it's like to be in a spitfire as it crashes into the sea? Well, you'll certainly find out as the camera seems to be sitting in the cockpit as the plane goes down. My great-grandfather was killed when his ship was torpedoed during the Second World War and throughout my entire life, that's been the extent of my comprehension of the incident. However here you're part of the explosion, you're in the room below deck when the lights go out, and the screams of panic are quickly stifled as the water bursts in. Although I'm sure it is still nowhere near close to experiencing the real thing, it is certainly the closest I've ever felt to experiencing the reality of these situations. With his skills of immersion, I can only hope that Nolan's next film is The Fappening: The Movie.

In his BBC review of the film, critic Mark Kermode said of Dunkirk, “This is what blockbuster cinema can look like. If you can make blockbusters that look like this, why would you not?” I saw Transformers: The Last Knight a week ago and despite featuring King Arthur, Nazis, and giant robot dinosaurs, the entire experience was about as fun as being kicked in the balls. Unlike Michael Bay's movie in which everything literally stops for characters to attempt to explain whatever the fuck is going on, Dunkirk is almost a silent movie. It just so happens to be one of the loudest fucking silent movies of all time. The narrative is pushed forward with actions rather than words, with dialogue being almost as sparse as the use of CGI. When we see a Spitfire hit the sea, we really are seeing a real Spitfire hitting the sea and not its pixel clone. Even for the crowd shots on the beach in the distance, rather than CG a fuck-tonne of soldiers in, Nolan instead used cardboard cut-outs of people. It's worth noting that these cardboard cut-outs also gave a more dynamic and three-dimensional performance than anything Michael Bay has ever managed to come close to in his piece of shit movies.

Many reviews have been claiming that this is Christopher Nolan's best film to date, however his films are all of such high quality that asking “which is the best?” is kind of like asking which real life politician would you most like to punch in the face? There's not really a wrong answer. However in terms of how well the story is told and how original it feels, there really is something special about Dunkirk. I don't want to spoil too much but my only annoyance is that you never actually get to find out if the boy from the opening managed to find a place to take his shit. I hope it's not a spoiler to say and I won't reveal the boy's actual fate but there's a perfect moment in which the film concludes with the events being reported in a newspaper. Just think how poignant it would have been to have Dunkirk start with him needing a poo, going through all that he did on the beach, and then finally getting home to a good English toilet. The symmetry of the story would have been perfect. You literally could have had that scene but with the boy sat on the loo reading the paper aloud and then just as he finishes the article you hear the splash of a dump, cut to the satisfied smile on his face, hear the flush of the toilet, and then cut to black. Thanks for reading motherfuckers and see you next time.

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