Monday, August 14, 2017

Movie Review: War & Art – Part 1


By Jonathan Price

In my unrelenting search for something worthwhile to feast my eyes on in late afternoon or early evening and take me from the Trump-drenched world to other worlds worth contemplating, while munching on the obligatory bag of unbuttered popcorn, I recently saw two films, Dunkirk and Maudie. The titles, as so frequently, tell you very little; the names of places or people or events, and they promise very little, unless you happen to know about these things in advance. They don’t really tell you about content or feeling or approach. You’re supposed to learn these on your own, through general cultural knowledge, or the deluge of previews in previous visits to movie houses. And I probably see more previews than the average moviegoer, trying to get my movie fix at least twice a week, arriving early to locate a suitable seat and to see previews.
    So here are two more movies that are inarticulate – in title at least – about uttering their intentions or tone: you have to know, to know. So far this 52 weeks, the most opaque title in this regard was Manchester by the Sea [reviewed on January 20, 2016], which told us nothing about the suffering and loss and trauma at the film’s center. It always seemed to me years ago that Philadelphia had a surprisingly misleading title though soon everyone knew what it was about, and yet it had the same lead-in as The Philadelphia Story.

Will this guy ever get to talking about the films themselves? Yes. They are actually two very opposite and worthwhile films in their own way. Dunkirk, which judging by its prevalence in most of the theatres where I live, and its deluge of previews in the 3-5 months before, is a film most of you will see and be familiar with, or so I assume. It’s a film about World War II, the war that keeps on giving. In the three and a half years it existed, from an American perspective, it absorbed the attention, treasure, and in some cases, lives of Americans (though many more Americans died in the Civil War, 620,000 v. the 408,000 dead in World War II; yet of course far fewer films have emerged from our civil war). This tide of movies and art about the War, fascinating in its absorption, shows no sign of ceasing, though movie makers have looked into so many of its little known side stories, such as the The Monuments Men [reviewed on March 9, 2014] sent to preserve works of art, or Woman in Gold [reviewed on April 19, 2015], about a stolen work of art, to name only two of recent vintage. And now we have the current one with its focus on Dunkirk, technically and actually a battle that didn’t absorb us (i.e., Americans), as it was fought by the British and French and Germans in May and June 1940 before the U.S. entered the war.
    But we still know of it, know enough to think of Dunkirk, or Dunkirque (French), as a historical moment tied to a place, which most of us can’t find readily on the map: it’s at the upper right-hand, east, corner of France’s Atlantic coast, on the Belgian border and abutting the English channel. From the map, Dunkirk seems the closest location on the European mainland to England—it’s about 40 miles away, but actually Calais is a bit closer to the English coast. Compare this to the distance from the British coast to the Normandy beaches, site of the counterattack on D-Day, almost four years later to the day – about 100 miles. The way back is much harder! The Germans blitzed through France in a month; the Allies, despite far superior strength and a near foregone conclusion, fought their path across the channel to the heart of Germany and into Berlin in about a year.

    Dunkirk was, in effect, the conclusion of the early British-French war with Nazi Germany and an abrupt and surprising endpoint in what turned out to be the early stages of a war that was declared (by the allies) in September 1939; yet little physical fighting took place until May 1940. Once the Germans attacked, on 10 May, it took them essentially three weeks to sweep across Northern France and reach the coast, almost cutting off the remaining allied troops from withdrawal. The actual evacuation of Dunkirk is usually dated May 26-June 4, 1940, less than two weeks. About 340,000 troops of the British Expeditionary Force were evacuated in the 9 days of the process, some from the “harbor,” some directly from the beaches. This still left about 70,000 British troops who had been left behind or died in France. Nevertheless the evacuation is considered one of the war’s key opening events, and offered a glimmer of hope to those fighting Hitler; it concluded, as the film does, with Churchill’s iconic speech that “We shall fight them on the beaches . . . we shall never surrender.”
    Most of this previous two paragraphs of history is assumed, implied, or elided by the film, which like most war films, is required to actually tell a story with characters. War is a vast, brutal enterprise that at some level, or some point is a battle of statistics, in which humans, as Hemingway suggested once, are like ants being burned on a log, numerous and somehow unimportant. But we respond to war because of the anecdotes, the personal stories, whether it is those of Saving Private Ryan or those of Dunkirk. The current movie begins powerfully with a British soldier fleeing bullets through the streets of an apparently deserted French town, mostly full of ruins, barriers, or bulwarks. Drifting through the air are a multitude of mysterious flyers notifying the recipients that they are surrounded by German forces. We never see the source of these bullets; when they stop for a while, they seem to resume around the next barricade or corner, though the laws of physics and logic suggest they do not come from the same source. Eventually we see the soldier make it to the beach at Dunkirk: there slow, endless lines of men stand about in single file, apparently waiting to make it into boats. They also line up for the “mole,” one of the remaining piers along which embarkation is still possible.

    Another aspect of war that the film “gets right” is its relentless unpredictability and frustration. In fact, for the two central characters, the escape from Dunkirk is a representative series of failures and near-mortal frustrations. They try to embark on a departing ship by running a wounded soldier on a stretcher past an endless line of waiting embarkees, but are rejected at the ship’s plank because they are not medical personnel. Though they hide on the pier and jump on another ship, they are nearly drowned when it is attacked, capsizes, and floods. They flounder in the oily water and appear to catch fire. One of the two, returned to the beach, takes shelter inside a transport stranded by low tide, soon filling with other refugees; as the tide rises, tiny holes appear in the bow, increasingly obvious as bullet holes; the inhabitants cower from the unseen source and try to plug the holes, as the rising tide comes through the boat.
    So, at the film’s center are these linked stories of the two soldiers – one British, one anonymous and temporarily mute (but actually French; he has tried to disguise his identity because initially the only combatants being rescued are British) – who like most of the historical British soldiers lining the beach, escape. By film’s end they are riding on a British train taking them from Dover, drinking beer, and casually reading news of the miraculous success of the evacuation, listening to Churchill’s heroic speech. We know from history that the film’s narrative arc is moving toward this end, though, as a retreat and an evacuation, it is hardly a clear triumph, except that so many stranded combatants are unexpectedly saved.

There are three other parallel narrative arcs in the films: the story of a few British pilots, who protect troops and ships, while gradually being shot down; the story of a single British civilian sloop relentlessly proceeding to Dunkirk to pick up survivors; and the decisions of the commanding British officer, Kenneth Branagh, to get the troops “home” (i.e., Britain, because it is so close), himself staying too long on the stranded French shore. At moments of key suspense, the background noise/music swells in an increasing tempo of mechanical sounding tones that I found increasingly artificial and annoying: I can tell when there’s suspense, especially one created by a series of cuts and forward motion lasting seemingly forever.
    Though this is only a sliver of the vast and branching tree that was the second World War, it is still, like every war film, from a limited and narrowed perspective: that of the retreating forces. We know, throughout the film, that these bullets and bombs and shells come from the Nazis, but we never actually see one, until the sole British pilot from the subplot exhausts his fuel, lands safely on the Dunkirk sands, sets fire to his plane, and is arrested nonviolently by German soldiers. The French, who held off some of the German forces while the British evacuated (and were themselves then partially evacuated to Britain) are seen only in one early shot and represented in the second, seemingly taciturn, of the two fleeing soldiers.

There are some great directorial and cinematic decisions in this film, but it is hard for me to say how oddly it is insufficient, unsatisfying. Perhaps it is that the three central stories, like so many in war, are radically disconnected and, in the end, unsurprising and leading to a “happy” ending. The two escaping soldiers make it to Britain, the rescue ship rescues many and brings them back, the British pilot survives dogfights and protects evacuees and finds a way to survive. Somehow I had expected more from Christopher Nolan, the famed director who first came to attention with Memento (2000, Nolan’s second film), about a man tattooing information about the present on his body and living backward in time. Eventually we learn he is like the mythical Alzheimer sufferer who experiences joy in hiding and recovering his own Easter eggs, because he cannot remember anything from one moment to the next. Nolan was also the directorial force behind The Dark Knight trilogy, The Prestige, and Interstellar [reviewed on January 4, 2015].
    It’s probably unfair to offer a critique of a single war film when so few have been truly remarkable. But it’s not easy to make a serious and meaningful film about anything so vast and complex and painful and contradictory as war. This is the second film about Dunkirk; the first, also British, came out in 1958, with significantly different subplots. Probably the most recent war film worth remembering is Saving Private Ryan, which, for the half-hour of its transcription of the D-day landings at the opening, is remarkable for its sheer visual terror and gore and enough to dissuade young teens from being enthusiastic about warfare. Sadly, Saving Private Ryan meanders toward its predictable heroic end (Ryan saved, all his altruistic defenders/protectors killed: a fairly thin reed on which to balance the purpose for all our actions in warfare). But in its D-day depiction, it was far superior to an earlier incarnation, The Longest Day, based on the anecdotal an exhaustive reportage of Cornelius Ryan. For the earlier film was merely an entertaining and amusing collection of individual stories of survival and disaster, with little to connect them: a dilemma imposed by the very nature of a day of warfare itself—it struggled with the tension between history and narrative. In that film, the landings themselves were oddly bloodless and seem, now by contrast, almost lifeless: when anyone died in that day, they had been shot, and just fell over hitting the sand as if they were going to sleep early: unlike Saving Private Ryan, they didn’t lose an arm and search for it, or call out in agony for their mothers, or were burned alive screaming in pain. Sadly, in Nolan’s Dunkirk, soldiers are again just falling over to denote death, though the terror and fear of wounding and bombing seem real and everpresent.
    Dunkirk is what used to be called a blockbuster of a film: major director and major star (Kenneth Branagh, though he actually has a minor role), months-long lead up in previews in theatres and television, playing in virtually every multiplex simultaneously on opening day.

Copyright © 2017 by Jonathan Price

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