How to make me not care about war

Dunkirk

 

Tea: Assam

 

The latest movie by one of my favourite directors, Christopher Nolan, is the war-movie-not-really-a-traditional-war-movie Dunkirk. While I am a huge fan of Christopher Nolan, it does not blind me like other fans and I won’t accept everything he throws my way out of sheer gratitude. That being said, I am also not a huge fan of war movies like Saving Private Ryan and I haven’t even seen Hacksaw Ridge, because… well, this will me make sound even crazier than usual, but I think the horrors of war depicted in movies are often rather funny. I can never truly connect with anyone in a war movie because everything is so corny. (Exceptions to these rules are Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket for obvious reasons). The following is therefore a movie review with a big asterisk attached to it that if you genuinely get an emotional punch from war movies with high degrees of realism, you will most likely massively enjoy Dunkirk, for the rest of you, well, I’ll get to that now:
Dunkirk follows several individuals at land, at sea, and in the skies during the evacuation of -you guessed it – Dunkirk, which follows the historic event at the same place. The most interesting aspect about these multiple perspectives is the way time is handled between each of them. The time that elapses at various places is stretched or shortened so that some story strands can overlap within the movie while still retaining a temporal integrity of different perspectives, such as the journey of a private boat from England to Dunkirk and the one hour of fuel a pilot has left as he circles the sea and fights of enemy planes. This is one of the best aspects of the film, as a few twists get woven into this and it makes for an impactful narrative style, especially when the different time “zones” converge near the end. The movie also has a very un-Nolan length in that it is rather short, but I prefer a tightly focused experience over a drawn-out slog. We follow different “characters” on their way out of Dunkirk or back to Dunkirk to save survivors and all of the different perspectives paint a comprehensive mural of the various sides of war and how people experience it apart from the traditional foot soldier and wife at home starring longingly at a black and white framed photograph. Dunkirk manages to avoid most of the clichéd scenes and dialogues that typically find their way into such a film and works with a minimal amount of dialogue. The entirety of the lines spoken can probably fit on two pages. Is this a bad thing? Yes and no.

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– Also, this shot is not in the movie and already gives of a character focused impression. –

I am a dialogue person. I enjoy listening to well-written dialogue far more than grandiose action set pieces. Dunkirk is therefore a difficult case. Many critics have claimed that the movie develops all the characters without much dialogue and here I must disagree strongly with the majority. None of the character really do develop apart from maybe two. All the other ones are characterised without much dialogue that is true. And when this is done, it is done masterfully. The first ten to twenty minutes are an absolute masterpiece in telling a story without many words. As a matter of fact, the first minutes are probably my favourite part of the movie. This plays out in the abandoned city of Dunkirk with gunfire coming from god-knows-where and people are just running for their lives. This also includes a relatively long tracking shot, which I also enjoyed. It’s just a shame that the movie can never rekindle the intensity of that first moment (at least with me). However, none of the characters ever reach anything close to depth. There is a constant underlying tension, make no mistake, but the lack of characters I feel attached to makes all the scenes hollow. Faceless soldiers die in a war, yes, that is the basic message of almost every war movie. And I am fully aware that this is very specific criticism and if you are into this ultra-realistic take on the matter at hand and the idea of just experiencing the horror is enough then the movie certainly delivers. But some scenes that should have gripped me, were just a bit boring without any investment. It is an odd choice to attach perspective so strongly to certain character but without giving us any reason to be interested in them other than seeing more of the life-and-death situation they stumble into next. It is as if the movie wanted the viewer to experience the atrocities without investment in a character but then ties the perspective to a handful of individuals we are now arbitrarily supposed to care more for than the extras getting blown up in the back of the shot.

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– Why even have these individuals run into life and death scenarios over and over again if we are supposed to care about all human beings equally? –

One of the most intense cinema experiences I can recall is the docking sequence from Interstellar. That was real edge-of-my-seat stuff right there and I can still not breath regularly when I watch it, even on YouTube. Which is a testament to how well it is done. Dunkirk never reached this height of tension. In Interstellar I was invested in the characters and the entire operation was heavily reliant on the main character since it was such a daring move. Combine all that with an amazing score and you have a legendary scene, in my book at least. Speaking of soundtrack: I was immensely disappointed with Hans Zimmer this time around. This score is nothing extraordinary. The best track is one called “Supermarine” and most of the other tracks are repeated atonal sequences akin to air raid-warning sounds, ticking clocks, or heartbeats etc. It is not a score I can picture myself listening to, simply because I do not want to hear three minutes of repeated build-up that never climaxes in anything. The sound of the movie, however, is fantastic and I can only advise you to see it in a cinema with the best sound system you can find. When German pilots attack the beach and the screeching sound becomes louder and louder, so much so that it almost hurts your ears, that is truly immersive and well done. But it is also not overused and therefore also another part I really enjoyed. The soundtrack certainly serves to illustrate the tension, but again, this is done is such a blatant realistic fashion that it becomes boring to me. Yes, repeated sounds with rising volume raise the tension, but so does the masterful soundtrack of Crimson Tide and that is not just one sound repeated over and over. I understand why it was done, and it makes sense for this realist take to an extent, it just does not appeal to me.

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– * Plays louds clock ticking sound over entire scene * –

Visually the movie is a masterpiece. Camera, editing, and all the different shots are perfect. There is nothing wrong with the movie on a technical level and I would not be surprised if I saw a few Oscars making their way to the team in the department of edition, sound design etc. The big problem is, however, that is all it has to offer. On paper, I should love this movie: Christopher Nolan, Hans Zimmer, technical marble, new take on war movies without corny dialogue, Tom Hardy wearing a mask, playing with chronology, little to no use of CGI. All of that sounds great, but in the end, it doesn’t convince me. I highly respect Mr Nolan for his very restricted use of CGI, but when I am told that 400000 people are still stranded in Dunkirk but he only had 6000 real actors on the beach, that is a huge discrepancy. The stakes feel artificial. I cannot see the problem, because getting these few people off the beach should be easy. The number we are told is scary and abandoning them equally horrific, but it is never communicated visually which is paradoxical in a movie focusing so much on a realistic take on the matter. Maybe a few copy-pasted lines of waiting and dying troops would have helped here. As a whole, however, the visual aesthetics are just very blatantly realist. The shots of long stretches of the beach or the sea are visually pleasing, but aesthetically lacking if you are looking for something a little more enticing. This surely captures the great emptiness of the space and in that also of war, but at the end of the day a nice shot of a beach is just that. It fits with the overall visual tone of the movie, but I felt myself longing for something more appealing to look at than the endless sea, especially due to the lack of dialogue. It captures the reality of war (presumably), but I am not involved in that war, I am watching a movie and demand stimuli in whatever form they may come.

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– This is the closest the movie gets to developing a character and big surprise, it is the only part that stuck with me. –

There are a few coincidences that I think were a bit cheesy, but it is still nothing that ruins the experience and I am more than willing to accept that something like that could have actually happened in a real scenario. Cillian Murphy does an amazing job as he always does and is certainly the most interesting aspect of the film that is sadly never fully used. To follow his story before he was picked up by a private boat would have been exciting, but his acting is top notch either way. Tom Hardy does an excellent job at communicating a lot just through his eyes which he did equally well in Dark Knight Rises as Bane. As a matter of fact he sounds a lot like him in this movie. All of the other characters do a good job at portraying their role, but then again do not really have to do all that much other than looking beaten down and on the verge of giving up. There is no performance that takes you out but also not a single one that pulls you in. Cillian Murphy’s role could have achieved that, but his part is cut far too short and the perspective on him is too limited.

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– Rightmost guy looking at the sky has to be a punctum as described by Barthes –

In the end, Dunkirk is a technically flawless movie. It is a heavily realistic take on the matter, but far too realistic at that for me. The lack of a main focus left me as a passive observer rather than an engaged participant. The musically disappointing score drags down the entire experience which is a shame simply because the rest of the sound design is amazing. I did not want this to be a by-the-numbers war movie with dialogue of a wife back home etc. but I also did not want it to be bereft of any characters and investment at all and basically boil down to a glorified documentary without a background narrator. Perhaps it is a moralist’s standpoint not to aestheticize war but rather turn it into a bleak realist depiction. However, this simply does not make for an exciting movie. It is worth seeing in the cinema simply for the visual pleasure and the sound it packs. Other than that, it cannot convince. I am reminded of The Revenant which was another movie with great visuals but nothing behind all of it. It pains me to say this, but this is my least favourite Christopher Nolan film. Which does not make this a bad film, I just left the theatre disappointed.

Image sources in order of appearance:
http://hdqwalls.com/wallpapers/dunkirk-2017-movie-4k.jpg (Last date of access: 28.07.2017)
https://i.ytimg.com/vi/CF6Sez7RWog/maxresdefault.jpg (Last date of access: 28.07.2017)
http://www.movpins.com/big/MV5BMGIyZTZiYWUtNjY2OC00YTg5LWE3ZTMtZjQxNjI4OTA3ZmVjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjUxMjc1OTM/tom-hardy-in-dunkirk-2017.jpg (Last date of access: 28.07.2017)
http://www.movpins.com/big/MV5BYzQ1OGFjYWQtNmMwZC00YzE2LWE1YWQtY2Y2NzkxNDFlYzYyXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjUxMjc1OTM/cillian-murphy-in-dunkirk-2017.jpg (Last date of access: 28.07.2017)
https://i.ytimg.com/vi/k3gybIniiRw/maxresdefault.jpg (Last date of access: 28.07.2017)

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5 thoughts on “How to make me not care about war

  1. For me, the main problem with war movies (which I usually quite enjoy, I have to admit) is the shameless glorification of one nation or the other (I won´t name any, but I´m sure you can guess what nation I´m talking about here anyways). I wonder whether this is also the case with Dunkirk. I know and appreciate Nolan as a director whose works convey the deep thought that has gone into them and expected some well-balanced and – just as you confirmed – realistic depiction of the horrors of war. Character development or no aside, I´d also be especially interested in WHO these characters are. For the main part masculine, so much is clear and valid (in this case at least). I´d rather have no female character at all than that annoying wailing wifey-type you already mentioned. My point is: a movie tries to immerse its audience by multiple means, one of them – and of course one of the most important – being the characters who serve as figures of identification. And in my opinion, a truly well-balanced and realistic depiction can only be achieved through a cast of various different characters (and not just the stereotypical patriotic war-hero of a certain nation (and – again – we all know what nation I mean)).
    The reduction of dialogue is something I highly welcome. Not only is it better to cut it out entirely rather than use already overused phrases over and over again. It also discreetly implies that something as terrible as war cannot be put into words. As crass as this comparison might seem, when I read the section about the minimum of dialogue in Dunkirk, I was permanently reminded of Sophia Coppola´s impressive “Marie Antoinette”. There, too, are long stretches of only silence, packed in pictures that not only seem (!) random, but often enough outright boring. That´s also the reason why I didn´t like the movie at first. As I watched it again (and then again and again), however, the feeling of estrangement began to fade and I realised that the cutting out of dialogue gave me the chance to concentrate more on the implicit and potent meaning of the visual clues that now had to convey all the meaning. And let´s face it: opting for such an approach is far more difficult, because instead of just revealing the meaning by some phrases of dialogue and be done with it and thus not giving the audience the chance to come to their own conclusions, the movie has to find other ways (great, expressive acting on the part of the cast, fitting environments, colours, sounds, an especially sophisticated and coherent line of narration) to actually get across its message. It´s challenges like these that give birth to masterpieces and I´d wish more directors would be aware of that fact and would try to rise to it. I have the feeling that Nolan tried this in Dunkirk and I hope I won´t be let down by this assumption.

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    • I had to read you wonderful comment several times before I felt ready to answer it. Here goes: First off, Nolan does not glorify a nation in this, in fact the illustrates the dickish behaviour of Brits towards the French pretty good. The only thing that gets close to this is a moment that emphasises the notion of home and the imagined community of the nation but it never glorifies it in a militaristic sort of way, so I let that slide.
      I also have nothing against silence. I was thinking of Shame when you brough up your example which also has very little dialogue and long stretches of silence and yet, these work because there is something to work with, to connect to. The character focus only makes sense in a movie with characters, the method of characterisation is irrelevant, be it dialogue or gestures, as long as I have something to attach myself to during all the action and brutality.
      Nolan on the other hand, attaches the focus to an individual without ever in any way letting him develop a character. It is a mere stand in for thousands of indentical soldiers, but the movie still treats him special, since he is the main focal point and this discrepancy is what broke the movie for me.
      Everything is so clinically devoid of depth the blatant realism almost feels too real, if you get what I mean. There is little blood in the movie, the beaches look baren, everything feels trimmed down and clean shaven. And the same goes for characterisation: We are told and conveyed the bare minimum to make sense of scenes and that’s it. And after a while it just lost my interest.

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      • That´s really a shame and a great let-down for me, especially because a topic like this has to be treated in an appropriate way as not to convey a distorted impression on the audience. It is thus a very good thing that the movie shows the terrible impact, the landing had on the coasts of the Normandy. And its people. However, just as you said it, the main focus lies on one (American, there, I said it) soldier who serves as a stand-in for every other soldier and I think it is really telling that this key-character doesn´t develop in the least. Furthermore, it is just as telling that it is mainly an American perspective we are provided with.
        As it stands, if I get the chance to go to the cinema in the near future, I´ll rather opt for Valerian than for Dunkirk. I think that Besson´s movie isn´t such a huge box-office success because its director is French. But maybe I am the one who´s racist here.

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      • The focus lies on a British soldier, I said that, right? And the main perspective is British as well, even though you can be forgiven as it is a very American thing to do.
        While I would agree that French directors are often met with the stigma of brooding French movies, Besson probably gets a pass from most people due to his past work, although I have not heard the best about Valerian. Here’s hoping you are pleasantly surprised.

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  2. Oh, I see. Makes sense with Nolan being a Briton himself. Interest levels rising again.
    Yeah, I´ve heard that too: Valerian is said to be too similar to Avatar and The Fifth Element. As both of these movies are brilliant, however, I´m not quite giving up on it, yet.

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