Dunkirk: Confused telling of a simple story

Posted by Kaahon Desk On July 23, 2017

At some point, around the turn of the millennium, the idea of popular cinema mutated into some kind of an immersive experience within a larger multimedia environment. In its mutated avatar, cinema started to resemble video games, virtual reality or theme park rides, investing less on its fundamental specificities such as different aspects of mise-en-scene, etc. Consequently, the index of merit turned out to be a display of spectacle in exchange of the cinematic. And while that itself might constitute the definition of cinema for a section of the contemporary audience, for others it’s just noise, both in image as well as in sound. In that sense, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk aspires to be an immersive experience, leaving cinematic aspects looming somewhere in the background, overlooked, neglected and oftentimes completely discarded.

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The film is based on the historical Dunkirk Evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk in Northern France, between 26 May and 4 June 1940, during World War II. The operation was marked by its active civilian participation in the rescue bringing back large numbers of British and French, along with some Belgian and Canadian troops who were trapped and surrounded by German forces during the Battle of France. As with any historical event, especially during wartime, the Dunkirk Evacuation also involves a large number of historical and political factors, which provide the context to the entire incident. Generally mainstream war films usually go for one of the three approaches. The first is to deal in detail with the crisis and strategies, the pros and cons of the mission and then depict the execution in a similarly detailed fashion; a classic example would be The Longest Day (Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki, 1962). The second approach is to ignore the historical details and focus on the psychological experience of the horrors of war, best exemplified by Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979). The final approach is to build a quasi-thriller narrative usually based on a covert operation with the war only providing a backdrop or a context. Popular examples would include The Dirty Dozen (Robert Aldrich, 1967) or Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009). While there is of course no hard and fast rule which says that a filmmaker has to stick to one of these conventions, Dunkirk keeps oscillating among these three with both the screenplay and direction appearing aimless and unsure and not a single moment of inspiration or genius which might hint towards any novelty in approach.

Being a Christopher Nolan film, the idea of a non-linear editing very much comes with the territory. With films like Memento, Prestige and Inception, Nolan had successfully established himself as a master of non-linear narration. Having said that, all of the aforementioned films were based on a plot, which demanded a storytelling that was out-of-sequence to achieve the maximum impact. In Dunkirk, Nolan cuts between three different timelines; a week on the pier where soldiers are stranded trying unsuccessfully to evacuate in large vessels, a day aboard a civilian boat heading towards the beach from the mainland as a part of the rescue team and finally an hour-long flight of three fighter planes assigned to bring down German bombers interfering with the rescue. To cut a long story short, the plot can be put down as thus; allied soldiers lie stranded on a beach surrounded by the enemy. Due to technical difficulties regarding the depth of water, large naval vessels cannot reach the point to bring them back and thus the Government enlists the help of small civilian boats. In order to provide the boats a safe passage from German bomber planes, the air force sends fighter planes to oversee the entire mission. And herein lies the simple yet million-dollar question. What could have urged the filmmaker to opt the non-linear editing technique to narrate this plot? It turns out not only to beredundant but also makes a straightforward tale of rescue mission unnecessarily convoluted.

A major weakness in the film, particularly due to a flawed screenplay, is the way information is disseminated all through. Almost all of the context, the crisis, the possible threats and probable solutions are supplied in functional and cliché dialogues, without incorporating them within the narrative, ignoring the classic dictum of ‘show-don’t-tell’. This results in a surprising lack of drama and put together with a glaring lack of characterizations, it almost becomes impossible to invest emotionally even in a moment of crisis and its possible outcome. The ‘perfect’ and precisely controlled cinematography resulting in very neat images hardly helps the cause. One needs to look no farther than Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998) to have an idea of how certain camera movements, compositions and angles can successfully communicate the blood-stained, chaotic and visceral experience of war even in mainstream cinema. However, the most glaring drawback in the film is the complete absence of the enemy. They are turned into faceless, fairytale monster like entity making their presence felt only in sudden outburst of bullets, a bomb from the sky or a torpedo out of nowhere, turning the entire thing into a video game like scenario! The only saving grace in the film is its sound design; the balanced combination of the consistent muted mechanical hum and the tick-tock of a stopwatch succeeds in creating a sense of tension even when the screenplay or the cinematography falls short.

Dunkirk is also an embarrassing document of wasting a set of talented actors in utterly pointless roles. Kenneth Branagh spends the entire time pacing up and down a pier and looking through binoculars while Cillian Murphy wraps himself up in a blanket and speaks three and a half sentences and pushes a boy down the stairs. And Tom Hardy revisitsthe ‘Dark Knight Rises’ days, as he spends 90% of the screen time with his face covered in mask and goggles! The only actor who had a proper character to play was Mark Rylance, a civilian mariner commandeering his own boat to the rescue mission and he was both earnest and convincing in his portrayal of the British moral fiber and self-righteousness. But then this is the year 2017. The real world hardly cares about British supremacy anymore…

Arup Ratan Samajdar

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