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Thursday, July 20, 2017 12:04 am

Impressive Dunkirk hampered by gimmick

Fionn Whitehead as Tommy in Dunkirk.


There’s no shortage of ambition on display where Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is concerned. In replicating the evacuation of 400,000 Allied troops from Northwestern France in the late spring of 1940, the director doesn’t shrink from giving us the sort of spectacle and scale necessary for a story such as this. Neither does he skimp on showing us the horror of being pinned down by a merciless enemy who shows no hesitation in attempting to wipe out the soldiers who are trapped between enemy territory and the Strait of Dover, England and safety, a mere 26 miles away and in sight. Yet in telling us this story from three distinctive perspectives, each with its own unique timeline, Nolan provides us with a gimmick that’s meant to move us, but ultimately proves to be a needless distraction.

The three-pronged attack to provide audiences with a look at these events from the shore, the sea and the air all have a different feel to them, coupled with varying perspectives of time. The first, titled “The Mole,” follows infantrymen Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), caught in the confusion and anxiety on the beach, where they’re forced to dodge one attack after another as they wait to board a transport home. Their story is spread out over a week’s time, while the second plotline, “The Sea,” takes place only during the day of the evacuation. Here we see English businessman Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) unload his own boat and set out to help bring home however many soldiers he can with his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his friend (Barry Keoghan) in tow. The final story, “The Air,” follows the efforts of two pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) to pick off the numerous German planes trying to sink the rescue ships or kill the soldiers on shore. Their story takes place over the course of a single hour during the final pullout.

Much as he did with Inception, Nolan cuts back and forth between these three offset plotlines, suggesting they are happening simultaneously as they converge during the film’s final moments. This is all done in an effort to imply that a sense of destiny ties the actions of the characters together, all of them contributing to the successful outcome of the evacuation. While this seems a sound approach, it ends up being a needless distraction. Rather than being caught up in the fate of these converging timelines, I focused far more on whether the stories overlapped in a plausible and timely manner. There are clues in each story early on where you see this occur and, for the most part, the sequencing seems correct.

However, this approach is superfluous where generating poignancy is concerned. Nolan and his fine cast do so time and again as we witness horrific images of men being torn apart on the beach or trapped on an overcrowded pier, while the acting across the board conveys the necessary emotional response to elicit our empathy. A tragic event on Dawson’s boat involving a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) they pick up underscores the senseless nature of war, while the troop’s ultimate arrival home accurately conveys the sense of pride the nation has in the rescue and their troops without being too maudlin.

A moment of far-too-convenient heroism involving Hardy’s character at the end can be forgiven, as films of this nature require deeds such as this to be on display. Dunkirk does succeed in hitting all of the usual war film tropes (the futility of it all, the tragic waste of fine young men, the display of selfless acts, etc.) and portrays them well. No manipulation is needed to drive home the sentiment behind these moments, let alone a narrative gimmick that simply distracts from the inherent power of this compelling story.  

For a review of Wish Upon, go to the Cinemascoping blog at http://illinoistimes.com.

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