The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan



Dunkirk is the movie Christopher Nolan probably needed to make. After proving himself a master of action and fantasy with the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, and Interstellar, it was time for him to show that he could tackle something with real weight. Not that Nolan had to prove anything to anybody; it just seemed like it would be fascinating to see what someone of his talent could do with a big-scale story more based in reality. Unsurprisingly, Dunkirk is mostly enthralling, vividly dramatizing a significant historical event.

The setting, of course, is WWII. The Germans have pushed the French and British armies to the sea, where hundreds of thousands of stranded men await rescue. We see events primarily from the perspective of three different characters: a soldier (Fionn Whitehead) who keeps going from frying pan to fire in his attempts to survive; a pilot (Tom Hardy) attempting to shoot down the German planes bombing the men; and a civilian, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), who joins the call for anyone with a boat to go out and bring the troops to safety.

By far, the best thing Nolan does with Dunkirk is to provide you-are-there immediacy. Nothing here ever feels like a recreation. All of it is staged with such authenticity that you almost feel as though you've stepped into a documentary. That makes the scenes of survival extremely intense. Mid-air dogfights, people trying to escape capsized ships, and other perils are depicted in a way that drives home the almost unfathomable danger these troops were in. And that, of course, makes the rescue of so many of them even more inspiring.

Nolan jumps back and forth between the three central characters, definitively weaving their individual stories into one during the last ten minutes. It's a more innovative way of handling history than we normally see. Other filmmaking elements add to the impact. Much has been made of Nolan filming Dunkirk using IMAX cameras. Even if you only see it in the regular format, the visuals are magnificent. The resolution of the cameras makes the immense scope of the ocean and the beaches, where much of the action plays out, palpable. Hans Zimmer's score, meanwhile, literally ticks behind just about every scene, subliminally driving home the message that time is running out for the soldiers.

The one area where Dunkirk is lacking is in its character development. The action is emphasized far more than the people, which makes it hard to become emotionally invested, even as your adrenaline is made to pump faster. We don't really know any of the characters beyond a surface level. That's admittedly an intentional choice on Nolan's part; he wants to keep the plot driving forward to convey the urgency of the situation. Regardless, it prevents the movie from having the unforgettable power of, say, Saving Private Ryan. Dunkirk is always impressive to watch and often harrowing, yet also a bit distant in that respect.

The key would have been first-act expansion of Mark Rylance's part. The truly amazing thing about the story of Dunkirk is that so many civilians pitched in to help. Finding out how Mr. Dawson heard the call and decided to respond would have provided just enough of an emotional core to kick everything up a notch.

This issue will bother some viewers more than others. Most will agree that Dunkirk certainly succeeds as a look at one of the most extraordinary rescues the world has ever seen. Nolan is batting a thousand so far in his career. He steps in a new direction this time, delivering a picture that engages the intellect and the senses, if not exactly the heart.

( 1/2 out of four)

Dunkirk is rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.

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