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27 Jul 2017

A Visual Spectacle: Go See 'Dunkirk' in Theaters—but Don't Expect a Masterpiece

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Fionn Whitehead in Dunkirk. Fionn Whitehead in Dunkirk.

Christopher Nolan’s ambitious film about the 1940 evacuation of allied troops from Dunkirk is one of the great visual cinematic spectacles of the 21st century—and for that, he should be applauded.

Unfortunately, some of his scripting and editing decisions take away from the effectiveness of his movie. In a strange way, this is one of his least-successful films. We are talking about the guy who made Interstellar, The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, Inception, Insomnia and Memento. All of those are great films—and better films than Dunkirk.

Still, Dunkirk is a good movie, and an occasionally astounding one if you manage to see it on an IMAX screen, either at the Regal Rancho Mirage or elsewhere. Nolan shot on film, with all scenes intended for IMAX; add in some incredible soundtrack work by Hans Zimmer, and the movie begs to be seen in theaters—even if the experience is a bit empty in some ways.

Nolan, who also wrote the sparsely worded screenplay, makes the film in three parts. One part is the events on the beach, which take place over a week. The second part is the evacuation at sea, which unfolds in a day. The third is the battle in the air, which covers an hour’s worth of events. The film jumps from one timeline to the next, often abruptly, with the stories ultimately interconnecting. Any Nolan fan knows that he loves to make his movies in complicated ways involving time (Memento being a prime example), and the director himself has called Dunkirk his most experimental yet. Nolan is out to prove that you can cut away from a harrowing ship-sinking sequence to an also-harrowing battle sequence in the air—and maintain the tension all along. Unfortunately, he doesn’t pull off the stunt every time. There are moments when he cuts away to another timeline that I found frustrating and unnecessary. It feels like a director being a little too cute.

I know, I know: Nolan is trying to show how hectic, crazy and unilaterally nuts the whole situation was, with each battle and predicament being equally terrible. That sort of thing goes without saying: Soldiers and civilians were put through all kinds of hell, with one terrible occurrence after another. But Nolan’s experimentation comes at the expense of good, clean, straightforward filmmaking. So far, his movie-puzzle games work better with fiction than they do with real life events.

Mark Rylance plays the captain of a private boat on his way to rescue men from Dunkirk, while Cillian Murphy is a shell-shocked ship-sinking survivor; they provide the main performances in the “sea” portion of the movie, and they offer up the film’s best acting. Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles play soldiers on the beach—and let it be said that One Direction’s Styles is a natural onscreen. Tom Hardy, his face once again covered by a mask in a Nolan film, plays one of the fighter pilots, while Kenneth Branagh is on hand as Commander Bolton, overseeing the evacuation on land.

Zimmer’s soundtrack, which utilizes a ticking stopwatch, manages to ratchet up the tension and deliver some glorious notes. In many ways, it’s the glue that holds the whole enterprise together.

Nolan decided to use real ships, planes and sets rather than relying on CGI. In many ways, this gives Dunkirk the epic visual scope that is missing in many high definition, CGI-heavy efforts. This looks and feels like a real movie.

By all means, go see Dunkirk while it is in theaters. It’s certainly a good workout for the eyes and ears, and enough of the moments resonate to make the movie worthwhile. Just be prepared to feel slightly let down if you are thinking this is going to be Nolan’s best, or one of the year’s best films.

Dunkirk is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

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