Saving Privates Not Named Ryan
With the film world abuzz about “Dunkirk” this week, we paired the new war epic from Christopher Nolan with two other military rescue films: “Behind Enemy Lines” and “Black Hawk Down.” After Noah shares the story of his transcendental evening with Phish, we dig into “Dunkirk” and argue over whether Nolan’s manipulation of time is a gag or a successful bit of orchestration. At 25 minutes, we’re joined by Nolan superfan and friend of the pod Joe Kozal, who lays down a “Proposal” about where the auteur is at in his prestigious career.
We parachute “Behind Enemy Lines” at 37 minutes, wondering if Owen Wilson sprinting a whole bunch qualifies as a dramatic performance. Plus, an old friend of Chance’s sends in a great Owen impression. We wrap up around 50 minutes with “Black Hawk Down,” discussing the Ridley Scott film’s confusing international politics and two dozen recognizable actors.
We’d encourage you to check out Joe’s killer band blét here, and find a written review of “Dunkirk” below, if that’s your thing.
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–review by Chance Solem-Pfeifer
In a film landscape where, say, two dozen names evoke the stylish, literary, original work associated that tricky word “auteur,” Christopher Nolan is perhaps the only one currently guaranteed to attract moviegoers who do and don’t know his name.
In reimagining Batman, the 46-year-old director both cemented his career and paved the way for Hollywood franchises to not use their imaginations for the next 10 years. (“Insert a blaring anti-melodic drone, I guess? Throw in a parent’s untimely death for meaning? Have the villain give a seemingly ideological speech with nothing beneath it?”)
He’s also magnificently scrambled, defied, and toppled the narrative expectations of moviegoers three different times — with Memento, The Prestige, and Inception. He possesses M. Night Shyamalan’s devotion to twists with Ridley Scott’s attraction to grandeur. He’s a moody atavist behind the camera but never so grouchy that he doesn’t seek to give the audience theatrical pleasure. And as Noah and I have noted, he probably enjoys thinking of filmmakers as modern-day magicians.
The biggest question walking into his retelling of The Battle Of Dunkirk was just, why this, Christopher? Why would the man who represents everything new and dark-minded about popcorn filmmaking want to make a Clint Eastwood movie? What does the brooding craftsman of the unreliable point of view want with chronicles of WWII valor?
The answer is not that Dunkirk is vastly different than you think. It is as the trailers have advertised: visually gorgeous, liable to make you feel pneumonic. Granted, the history is relayed through some Nolan-isms, namely three combat timelines unfolding at different speeds, eventually aligning with a flourish. But the film’s uncomplicated themes of hope and empathy feel almost novel coming from Nolan. And at two hours in length, its greatest attribute may be a property for which Nolan never receives compliments — his restraint.
Pitching the historical stakes of Dunkirk is easy. Nearly half-a-million Allied troops were trapped on the titular French beach by the unstoppable first wave of Blitzkrieg. With shores too shallow and skies too dangerous for the navy, civilian boats from England executed a mass evacuation. Had the army been annihilated or captured, it would have been a potentially fatal blow to Britain’s war effort. And though the director has Brits on hand who can deliver one hell of a table-setting monologue — Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, and Tom Hardy — Nolan doesn’t put these stakes in an actor’s mouth.
Rather, he divvies them into microcosms, small quagmires that speak to the impossibility of surviving the English Channel at your back, Panzers at your front, and dive-bombers overhead. Yes, Dunkirk was a historical event of epic proportions. But Dunkirk was also a half-drowned gaggle of teenagers trying to launch a boat while plugging bullet holes with their palms. Dunkirk was a crashed pilot trying to flee his cockpit before the aircraft sank into the Channel. Dunkirk was a day-sailor’s yacht chugging into a possible U Boat infestation in the hopes of playing ferry. Every survivor has a different story of how they almost didn’t make it.
If you’ve read anything about Dunkirk at this point, it’s probably been about the relatively bloodlessness of the film. To nab his PG-13 rating but still render a movie of weight and torture, Nolan prioritizes the eeriness of physical spaces in his three combat theaters. The beach is vast and pristine, but lingering on it is a death warrant. Legions of shivering troops stand in dangerously neat lines because that’s what infantrymen instinctually do, like geese in a V pattern. An evacuation ship is cozy and dark — womb-like until the moment it’s tomb-like. A Royal Air Force fighter is freeing and kinetic, but surviving a fire fight in one is a crapshoot. The terror of potentially dying inside a tin can is brutal enough to undo the need for graphic violence. Nolan renders the crescendoing whir of a Stuka more sensorially taxing than most images of a bloody wound or lost limb could be.
On sand, water, and air, the three timelines all follow an avatar or two. Some are recognizable — notable for Wolf Hall or Henry V, crooning through a Bane mask or crooning in One Direction — but the famous faces are treated the same as the as-yet-anonymous ones. Nolan has made a movie about military hierarchy in breakdown, the commander as helpless as the grunt, but the most orderly idea left is that bombs and torpedos treat every human body with sobering equality.
While the readiest criticism for the film might be that the characters are devoid of personality, it’s easy to believe battle has done the robbing. Any war film worth its salt in 2017 will have PTSD on its mind and demonstrate how psychological scarring happens in real time. Tension and dread have created new biorhythms inside and all around the soldiers. Dejected men duck for cover during a beach-straifing and then dispassionately stand back up like mindless, exhausted jacks-in-the-box. Behind their story, frequent Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer, who has long been a purveyor of the two-note haunt, white-knuckles his way through a score that largely mimics a palpating heartbeat.
It all feels real, but the film isn’t out to argue that point so much. Nolan loves making films, and he’s quite aware this is one. It’s reassuring to know that one our great contemporary directors isn’t banking on the boring old promise of realism. The true trick (the, uh, prestige) is how he transforms the end of Dunkirk into Hollywood glory when it’s been so stark, so emotionally measured for the first 90 minutes. While history holds no breathtaking third-act surprise, it’s a slow-burning twist when the Zimmer alarm-system score builds into an unexpected opera and the desperate, flailing bodies we’ve been following all film turn into a nation. Here, Nolan’s decision to tell the film non-chronologically hits paydirt. The timelines disorient and excite and quite possibly confuse, but when they come back together, their alignment speaks to Dunkirk the movie and Dunkirk the event as miraculous convergences.
Grantland’s Chris Ryan once presented a bifurcated theory of war movies: they’re either “reportage or poetry.” They’re either Platoon or Apocalypse Now, a re-creation or a meditation. Nolan is unquestionably trying for the former category with Dunkirk, but the movie still lands on the outskirts of that group. It isn’t trying to tell us about the cost of bravery; it’s extolling the virtues in seeing your home again in 1940, come what may in 1941. Even calling this event “The Battle of Dunkirk” feels like a misnomer invented by historians who mark time with conflict names and dates. What is a war movie that focuses solely on a retreat? What’s a World War II blockbuster that never looks upon the enemy, in which the word “Nazi” is never uttered?
Nolan’s body of work is reliable for asking more questions than it answers. We may remember the super villains and complicated flashbacks of his filmography, but Dunkirk asks us to recall that there have always been ordinary people in his films, unifying against the rising tide. His quiet certainty here is worth embracing. Why question the meaning of war when there is only one answer to its cruel face? Live.
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Be Reel is a movie reviewing & reappraising podcast hosted by Chance Solem-Pfeifer and Noah Ballard.
Each time out, we select three movies based around a genre and call up guests ranging from submarine captains to Oscar winners. Then, we rate the movies, weighing both technical quality and entertainment.
Noah and Chance are old friends who mostly respect each other’s opinions. Even though Chance is a fool and a traitor. Find their show presented at ThePlaylist.Net and follow them on Twitter for the latest on Noah’s literary agenting and Chance’s work in the Portland arts scene.