Friday, August 4, 2017

Dunkirk: Hemmed In by Sea and Sky...and the Wehrmacht

“What are you doing, son?” the boat master Dawson says, preparing to take his private vessel across the English Channel to Dunkirk, when the teenage dock-hand George hops into the boat. “I’ll be useful,” the boy responds. That’s all—I’ll be useful. It might be the signature line to Christopher Nolan's, Dunkirk, roundly and rightly hailed for its realism and evocation of war, especially war as it is experienced by the side that is getting (for now) soundly and thoroughly beaten.

What has been praised as realism in this movie is, I think, in fact a matter of photography and camera work. Never have I seen in the movies sea and sky that seemed so alive and present, stunningly close, breathtaking in beauty, but also full of menace. In a way, it is sea and sky that are just as much the enemies of the men trapped on Dunkirk’s beach, as the planes and destroyers that are menacing them. They are hemmed in.
The movie is admirably to the point, an hour and fifty minutes. (There was only one Godfather Part II. Any film aiming for longer than two and a half hours should aim to be that good, or start editing.)

The story is a great and worthy one, uncomplicated (so I believe) by the sort of historical complexities that tend to get elided over when Hollywood wants to tell a story. Forty-thousand men were trapped on a beach. England’s leader called for a citizen armada of private vessels to go and rescue them. The armada responded.
Americans love stories of British pluck and self-effacing heroism. Why aren’t we better at emulating it in our own crises? Our politics today seems like the extended tantrum of a spoiled child who has soiled his pants. Which is just why Dunkirk is important today.

But I confess to leaving the theater slightly dissatisfied. I had trouble hearing the dialogue, for one thing, which may have been me, or might have been the acoustics in the theater, or might have been the fact that everyone is a Brit and everyone is talking in hush or in a rush or both. More importantly, though, there isn’t that much dialogue to hear. And that gets to what was bothering me in a way I couldn’t quite identify—there just isn’t a lot of storytelling here. Of the hour and fifty minutes, approximately an hour and at least twenty of it is watching two guys get shot at, nearly bombed, nearly drowned, nearly suffocated, nearly killed a dozen different ways.
After a while, you lose the sense of exactly what is happening—Where are the shots or bombs or torpedos coming from? Where are they trying to get to? I suppose that’s a clever verisimilitude, since life in a warzone does that to you, upends every normal logical sequence and sense of place. Just try to survive the next shock.

But this is a movie, and you hardly even know it’s the German Wehrmacht and Navy—you know, the Nazis, led by that guy Adolf Hitler—that is doing the shooting, bombing and generalized terrorism of the guys on the beach. There’s so little dialogue because there is little or no storytelling, little or no context. Just a lot of cinematically brilliant mayhem. (Richard Cohen, columnist with the Post, brought this to my attention, sharing my sense that something was missing.)

Then, suddenly, three-quarters of the way through all this verisimilitude, the Armada arrives across the Channel and the movie breaks out into full-on Hollywood, milk-the-moment story-telling sentiment, with lush background music and Kenneth Brannagh’s eyes welling, every so very slightly, with tears.  
Next to me in the theater was a young woman who may been, maybe, 25 years old, but might have been as young as 17 or 18. She may be only barely able to recall 9-11. What was she making of what she saw on the screen? What could she have learned from this fine film? Not much about World War II or about why or how those 40,000 men came to be stranded on a beach being picked off by an enemy that introduced to the world the concept of total warfare (in truth, of course, the Allies did their part in that as well).

What had she come to see, anyway? Maybe she was there to see Harry Stiles. (Nothing wrong with that, and if that’s the case she was in luck, because there were a lot of cute English soldier boys to look at, lots and lots of them, boatloads you might say.)
I’ll be useful. As a goal or an ideal, striving to be useful in a good cause seems to have lost out to more individualistic objectives. That’s the way it is when the world seems safe. It may not be safe for long, which is why it’s important remember when—but also, crucially, why--people had to be choose to be useful over being safe.

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