The LAMB Devours the Oscars 2018: Best Picture Nominee: Dunkirk

by Jay Cluitt · February 4, 2018 · Featured, LAMB Devours the Oscars · 5 Comments

Every day until the Oscars ceremony we’ll be highlighting a different category or movie here on the LAMB! Here’s a link to all the posts written so far:

Today, Richard Kirkham from Kirkham A Movie A Day is here to look at another Best Picture nominee, Dunkirk.

There have been at least thirty films set during World War Two that have been nominated for the highest prize at the Academy Awards, Best Picture. Nine of those films have won the top Award (Ten if you are willing to include The Sound of Music). Clearly World War Two has been an important subject for film makers for the last seventy-five years. This year there are two films set during the war that have made it to the final nine and they are interestingly enough parallel images of the same event, the evacuation of British and other Allied troops at the onset of the war.

While Darkest Hour focuses on the political machinations in the British Government during this crisis, Dunkirk focuses on the logistical components of the emergency. It has elements of combat in it, but describing it as a combat film is probably misleading. Having said that, there are several sequences of combat that do ratchet up the tension in the film, but in a vastly different manner than say Saving Private Ryan. The real focus is on the actions being taken to rescue the English Army and the human toll that it takes on those involved. There are three perspectives being told during the course of the film. Each story is presented in a very different way but they are all ultimately tied into one another and when they converge, the climax of the film is both exciting and somber.

Director Christopher Nolan has a history of time shifting in his filmography. Memento is famously told backwards, The Dark Knight Trilogy is full of flashbacks and forward shifts in the stories. Interstellar is all about time travel, and Inception by default has time shifting elements to it. Dunkirk however is the apex of Nolan’s playing with time. The three stories that we are watching play out over three different periods, in spite of the fact that the film tells the stories simultaneously

For a week, on the land, the retreating troops are trapped on the French coast and gathering for evacuation. Nolan shows both the British temperament and the desperation that occurred in the moment. The British are famous for their tendency to queue up for almost anything. Here they are, patiently waiting in line to escape the approaching Nazi army and as is their wont, they have formed lines to the hospital ships that will take the wounded first. Of course those lines will make it easier for the Luftwaffe to strafe the beaches and do more damage, so the lines do have to break up on a regular basis and that’s when the story ends up taking the audience to some different places. Two relatively anonymous soldiers find a way to crash the line, only to have the whole thing blow up in their faces. A second opportunity turns out to be even more deadly. The fear expressed by a silent soldier, unwilling to enter the bowels of a ship, turns out to be cleverness and he ends up rescuing several others as a consequence. Maybe there is a subtle criticism being offered her. Don’t just follow the guy in front of you. When a group gets pinned down in a ship that has been grounded by the tide, once again, the lead guy, who raises his head to see what is happening, is the one who is going to suffer.

For a day, on the sea, we travel with a small boat captain, Mr. Dawson, as he pilots his craft across the channel to affect a rescue. A daring plan that relies on hundreds of civilian boats has been put into effect to try and pick up the pieces of the doomed military expedition. We are aware that others ships are a part of this flotilla, but until the end of the film, this is really the only group we follow. Dawson, his son and a local boy that works on the ship with them, head into the war with completely different responsibilities than the professionals stuck on the French Coast. This foreshadows the sacrifices the British people will need to bear for five years ahead. It also starts the call to service that the Prime Minister is about to make of the whole population.

The crew encounter a sunken ship that was returning with a large contingent, but unfortunately it has only one survivor. The shell shocked soldier is nearly catatonic, and he is the first vestige of the war that the three day sailors have encountered. Dawson seems to understand, perhaps as a veteran of an earlier war, that the soldier’s actions and comments are a result of trauma rather than cowardice. Mark Rylance creates the one character in the film that we get to know a bit more personally because of his role. This is still not a character driven exercise but now at least there is a character the audience can identify with and maybe relate to. While the nearly interchangeable tommys on the beach allow us to experience fear and desperation, Dawson and the boys give us faces to connect to for the story.

For an hour, in the air, the audience is deposited in the cockpit of a Spitfire, piloted by actor Tom Hardy. He once again hides under a mask [as he did for much of Fury Road and all of The Dark Knight Rises] to deliver his performance. Combat planes flying over the channel had the least amount of time to lapse in the events, but the story does not short change them for the film. The RAF squad engages in dogfights and strafing of bombers that were sent to wipe out the troops on the beach. The pilots who the story bothers to allow the audience to know, are heroic, but the film is rarely about individual acts of heroism, their actions exist in a context meant to put the viewer into the time and place.

The pacing of the film is well planned, as a ticking clock can be heard throughout the proceedings, the movement between the three story lines seems to move from a climax of intensity to a different moment where the intensity is building in a different setting. Ultimately, the timeline is creeping closer together as the activities of the three groups of men are converging.

As the RAF passes overhead at one point, Dawson and his crew marvel at the engines that are carrying the pilots we have been following to their destinies. A closer contact exists down the sea a bit and again, the inexorable connections between the stories grow closer, with briefer moments of time connecting or separating them.
This is the first Academy directing nomination for Nolan. His use of color palates in the different settings, the interweaving of the sequences with the rhythm they develop and the ticking tension that remains constantly in the background, are all attributable to his influence. He wrote the script but it is relatively brief and there is not a huge amount of exposition, Nolan shows us more than he can tell us.

The film has a deep emotional impact although it is not particularly sentimental. When it does invoke that emotion however, it is justly earned. The death of one of the soldiers we followed on the beach, happens quickly and amidst a cacophony of activity, even though in the end it is mostly silent. When Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton, the director of the evacuation on the beach, notices the arriving flotilla, he acknowledges it with a line of dialogue that was set up twice earlier in the film, and emotionally it feels earned. The events at home give the audience the perspective that is so important for this event. Yes, this was a defeat, but it was a defeat that inspired a nation to resist. A sad visit to a local newspaper office also foreshadows all the personal sacrifice that civilians will be forced to make in the coming years.

Finally, the defiant gesture of a downed pilot, combined with the words of an unseen politician who was rallying his people to the cause, make up the final scene in the film and condenses very effectively the meaning of all that was witnessed in the previous hour and forty five minutes.

The Academy Awards is a horse race, where the starting gate is misaligned so that some films have a longer and more arduous run to the finish. Along the course, there are stretches where the favorites lead, then fade, move back up to the head of the pack and get nosed out at the finish line. Last year, La La Land staggered before the line and was passed by Moonlight. This year, Dunkirk has been in the lead until the last turn in the track. All indications are that again a deserving contender will be passed by a flash of a critic’s darling. It will be a moment of injustice that will pass by and be forgotten. Fortunately the events depicted in this film will not suffer the same fate as the movie. Everyone owes a debt of gratitude and should be offering up a prayer, for the people who seventy eight years ago, found a way to defeat into the start of victory. It will not be a surprise that if years from now, people look back on this year as they do on 1998. Saving Private Ryan may have lost the Oscar, but it solidified a legacy by being left out. Maybe Dunkirk can repeat the plot, only this time in the Cinematic world of awards rather than on a French Beach.

What do you think of Dunkirk‘s chances at Best Picture victory?

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