A LOOK AT 2017 FILMS NOMINATED FOR PROMINENT OSCARS
BY LEE PFEIFFER
There was great trepidation in the film industry about whether director Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk" would be able to attract large enough audiences to recoup its considerable production costs. After all, most movie-goers are young people and the most popular kinds of features are superhero epics and gross-out comedies, not historical epics. To the surprise of many, "Dunkirk" did indeed prove to be a major hit, grossing over $500 million worldwide.This proves that the intelligence and taste of younger movie-goers should not be underestimated and also that Nolan himself enjoys the kind of loyal following that few directors can brag about. His name on a film will draw audiences that might be immune from a certain movies if not for his involvement. "Dunkirk" has also won critical acclaim and is nominated for numerous Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director. It's to Nolan's credit that he sought to bring this story to the screen during an era in which the average person is probably unacquainted with its historical significance, at least outside of Europe. That may be a sad reflection on society but it's all the more reason why Nolan should be commended for bringing the heroic saga to the spotlight.
"Dunkirk" relates the ominous period of time early in WWII when the British sent the bulk of its army as an expeditionary force into France to help stem the German invasion. At the time it was assumed that France had the strongest army in Europe. The recently -constructed heavily fortified Maginot Line was designed to be an impenetrable barrier to the German forces. Hitler decided to outflank the Allies by invading France through the back door in Belgium, plowing his tanks through the seemingly impassable Ardennes Forest, thus completely bypassing the Maginot Line and rendering its heavy artillery useless. The result was a rout for the Alllies and the bulk of the British army, along with French units, found itself trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk. German forces could have moved in for the kill but made a major mistake by giving their exhausted units some down time, feeling that the Allies had no way to escape. Churchill issued an edict that called up any available vessel to make a desperate journey across the Channel under heavy fire and air attacks to rescue as many soldiers as possible. These gallant civilians pulled off the impossible by doing just that and rescuing the bulk of the 300,000 British troops on the beaches. French troops also made it out and joined the Free French units stationed in England under the command of DeGaulle. All of this makes for a highly compelling story but only fragments of it end up in Nolan's often admirable film. He provides virtually no historic context to the action seen on screen, which covers the battle from the viewpoint of individual soldiers as well as a small boat captained by an every day middle-aged Brit (Mark Rylance, in excellent form), his teenage son and his good friend. Aside from an opening series of captions informing the audience of the bare bones facts, no other overview of the dramatic occurrences is provided.
The film presents the battle scenes in spectacular and intense detail. You can feel the fear and confusion among the stranded troops and individual soldiers who attempt to use any means necessary to hitch a ride on the few overcrowded British Navy vessels that were available prior to the arrival of the civilian "fleet". The scenes inside the cockpit of the British Spitfire, one of only a few available in the battle to combat the constant German air attacks, are especially riveting. When a pilot has to ditch his plane in the ocean, he finds his cockpit is jammed and he may well drown. It's this type of harrowing scene that allows Nolan to ratchet up the suspense. However, it's Nolan the scriptwriter who undercuts the production on numerous occasions by failing to provide any emotional core to the film, with the exception of the scenes involving Rylance, which are genuinely moving. The rest of the characters are just relatively anonymous combatants of which we know nothing about personally. We can relate to their dilemma but unlike the similarly-themed "The Longest Day", we have little emotional resonance in them beyond the fact that we simply want them to survive. Nolan also fails to capitalize on the arrival of the civilian fleet, one of the most inspiring moments in military history, as it not only spared 300,000 lives, but also saved England- and thus the world- by allowing its fighting men to be able to resist Hitler's aggression. Nolan provides only a few fleeting shots of numerous boats approaching the Dunkirk beaches but the type of soaring emotional moment you might expect is rather watered-down.
There's much to admire in "Dunkirk". It's a big, ambitious war movie the likes of which we rarely see today. The aerial combat scenes are extraordinarily exciting and frightening. The cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema is outstanding and Hans Zimmer provides a thundering, impressive score. More importantly, it attempts to commemorate a battle in which the British people turned a massive defeat into a tremendous victory. It's good filmmaking, but it never soars as high as you might expect and want it to.