Del reviews ‘Dunkirk’
“Dunkirk” Starring Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Harry Styles, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, and Tom Glynn-Carney. Directed by Christopher Nolan. 106 minutes. Rated PG-13.
Christopher Nolan does not make movies. He builds monuments, towering edifices that reach for the heavens as intricate conspiracies of space and time that dwarf the efforts of mere mortal filmmakers. “Dunkirk” is no exception. Like its predecessors, “Interstellar,” “Inception” and even “Memento,” “Dunkirk” fits together with an old-school clockmaker’s eye for precision and a craftsman’s appreciation for complexity and detail.
It is an excellent movie, perhaps worthy of the Oscar talk surrounding it, and I wouldn’t mind seeing Nolan rewarded with a statuette. But for my purposes “Dunkirk” lacks a single ingredient, missing from all Nolan movies, that would make it the best film of the year.
The story is told from three different temporal viewpoints – a week, a day, and an hour – by multiple viewpoint characters. Foremost is an unnamed British soldier (“Tommy” in the credits) (Whitehead) who is desperate to escape advancing Germans and not above a peccadillo or two to get aboard a boat heading west. Others include Mr. Dawson (Rylance), who captains one of the small boats credited with saving hundreds of thousands of British and French soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk. Tom Hardy’s role happens over a single hour as he pilots a Spitfire in battles with Messerschmitts, Heinkels and Junkers.
For those not up on their history, in the early days of World War II Hitler’s Germany, after finishing its conquest of Poland, invaded western Europe using a new fighting technique called “blitzkrieg,” or “lightning war,” where tanks and mechanized artillery, augmented by ground attack aircraft, moved at rapid pace to confuse and destroy opposing forces. In a few short days the Germans were able to surround the British and French armies that had deployed to northern France and Belgium, and threaten them with obliteration. Those armies had retreated to Dunkirk, where their commanders hoped the Royal Navy would carry them back to England. But the navy suffered grievous losses to marauding Luftwaffe bombers and U-boats and pulled their forces back. It was not until an armada of privately owned craft crossed the Channel did the soldiers find a way home – over 300,000 of them by the time it was over.
It may sound confusing, but the storytelling works itself out about mid-movie when you realize the three narratives are beginning to overlap and will presumably converge toward movie’s end. I’m not sure such a gimmick was necessary, but it does allow Nolan to focus on characters and not events, a characteristic of many war movies.
Acting was solid through and through. Newcomer Whitehead did a credible job, as did Styles in his role as a British soldier. Rylance proved again why he is an Academy Award winner, and his teenaged son, Glynn-Carney, rose above more experienced actors, such as Cillian Murphy.
The script was well written with only a few expository lapses here and there – Nolan loves to “explain” things or conduct info-dumps through dialogue. The score worked for me and visuals were mostly satisfying, although at times I could tell the difference between models or CGI and the real thing.
A few gripes: One subplot, where soldiers board a beached boat and wait for the tide to come in, goes on and on to the point of absurdity. And a historical error – Nolan has his Spitfires and Messerschmitts tangling at low altitude, only a few hundred feet above the waves. During the Dunkirk evacuation the air battles occurred at a much higher altitude, prompting British foot soldiers to ask, “Where was the RAF?”
My large complaint was with the strange lack of human warmth evoked by “Dunkirk.” Nolan, I fear, is more technician than artist, and as meticulous and grand as his movies may be, they don’t inform to the heart. The characters and their actions are merely a clockspring or spoked wheel in the Nolan gadget that tells a great story, but tells it mechanically. Call it the Uncanny Effect – it looks like human but is missing just enough to provoke a feeling of unease.
Still, “Dunkirk” is an excellent movie and you should buy a ticket and watch it in the movie theater, because that is where movies should be seen. Don’t be surprised if Nolan received an Oscar nomination for best director, nor should you be surprised if he wins. He is probably overdue.
If only Geppetto’s creation would discover that it is a real boy.
Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures.
“Fury” Starring Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, and Jon Bernthal. Directed by David Ayer. 134 minutes. Rated R.
Remember Donald Rumsfeld, the Bush administration’s principal civilian architect of the disastrous and destabilizing ongoing war in Iraq? He once sniped, if my tired old memory serves, something like, “You don’t go to war with the Army you want. You go to war with the Army you have.” Well, maybe America didn’t go to World War II with the tanks it wanted, but the ones it had – Shermans, as the opening narrative of the film “Fury” suggests.
Fury is the name of the Sherman crewed by the movie’s imperfect protagonists. The setting is April 1945 in Germany, where an American tank platoon is fighting what remains of the Wehrmacht and SS.
“Fury” stars Brad Pitt as war weary tank commander “Wardaddy,” Shia LaBeouf as superstitious gunner “Bible,” Michael Pena as unflappable driver “Gordo,” Jon Bernthal as savage mechanic and main gun loader “Coon-ass,” and Logan Lerman as idealistic and baby-faced assistant driver and hull machinegun gunner “Machine.” Fury, by the way, could just as easily refer to something burning inside each of the tank’s crewmen. Aside from newcomer Machine, they had been fighting together in North Africa and then Europe since 1942.
I have a hard time rating the film. It’s good, but something is missing.
An obvious plus is the movie’s grit, gore, and cussing. Another big plus is that it portrays warfare from a tank crew’s perspective. We’ve seen Hollywood depict WWII from the viewpoint of infantrymen, tin can sailors, and airmen, but not tankers. Also noteworthy are the visual effects. To me, it always looked like real Shermans in column churning muddy dirt roads or squashing hedges or trying to avoid the 88 mm gun of a Tiger tank during a point-blank showdown in a clearing.
LaBeouf as “Bible” was very good as the tank’s scripture quoting dead-eye gunner. For me, no war movie is complete without a character who sees God’s grace amid the carnage and upheaval of hellfire that is bullets, shells, bombs, and rockets. His faith was unshakeable as it tends to be, I imagine, among people desperately trying to make sense of whole-scale, legal murder and destruction of property known as war.
Bernthal as “Coon-ass” was sincerely unlikable. Uneducated and mean-spirited, Coon-ass was hardcore badass until an out-of-character lapse toward the end of the movie. But, he cared for his fellow tankers on the battlefield and that’s all that really mattered.
Pena as “Gordo” was pleasant but memorable for only one reason: He tells a weird story about slaughtering horses while Fury’s crew is occupying a German woman’s apartment. The woman is Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca, In the film, Marinca as “Irma” tries to protect her young, voluptuous cousin, “Emma,” portrayed by German actress Alicia von Rittberg, from the invading horde of GIs. (Check below for Del’s Take on the director’s take of Yankees during the late-war push into Germany. I didn’t realize it until Del and I had our usual movie post-mortem analysis session.)
Lerman as “Machine” did a decent job of losing his humanity as Fury pushed farther into Naziland. He went from avoiding killing to taking part with the best of them.
Let me start by noting Brad Pitt is one of my favorite actors. So, it’s tough to rap his knuckles, but, if “Fury” misses its target even a little, it’s because of him.
Pitt’s effort to portray “Wardaddy,” the Sherman’s staff sergeant commander as a man torn by, or wallowing in, what he has seen and done fails subtly. Wardaddy offers neither good-natured evil like, say, SS Col. Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s and Eli Roth’s “Inglourious Basterds” nor bad-natured goodness like, I don’t know, Schwarzenegger’s T-101 in “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.” Wardaddy is arbitrarily menacing, which may leave some filmgoers unsatisfied.
“Fury” feels authentic. The acting is proficient, the story plausible. “Fury” is a good movie and should be seen on the big screen. But, I felt little sympathy for the main characters. To me, the film’s most moving moment was the tank crew’s encounter with Irma and Emma, two souls protecting each other amid a world at war until their building is blown apart by their counter-attacking, fellow countrymen.
“Fury” follows a long tradition of war movies with a conscience, starting with “All Quiet on the Western Front” and following more recently with “Platoon,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “Saving Private Ryan.” It avoids Oliver Stone and Stanley Kubrick’s politics and pretty much adheres to the theme “War is hell – for most folks.”
I say pretty much.
I think that’s where Mladen is hung up. The movie wanders from its thematic impetus, pulling in tendrils of meaning from a variety of predecessors, from Stone and Kubrick to Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker,” so when it’s over you’re left wondering what to think.
It’s a nice bit of storytelling, though. I enjoyed the unique perspective – a tank crew. Don’t think I’ve ever seen that in a war movie. Nor do I remember a war movie from that time period, the waning days of World War II. By April 1945 the war in Europe was pretty much over and everybody knew it, even the Brown Shirts and lizardly SS henchmen who went scuttling to their burrows in South America.
The characters were nicely flawed but a tad overdrawn for my tastes. Each seemed almost a caricature of his “type,” the possible exception being Shia LaBeouf, who impressed me with his pathos. He pulled off a neat trick – reconciling his religious beliefs with the necessities of his job. And when somebody he loved was killed he showed convincing grief. I felt for him.
Jon Bernthal played virtually the same character he portrayed on “The Walking Dead.” If Bernthal isn’t careful, he’ll be typecast as a redneck. Logan Lerman as the innocent clerk dragooned to shoot Germans and drive the tank if necessary is nicely callow if just a little too good to be true. His conversion to killing machine struck me as slightly suspect – was he trying to save his hide or fit in with his tank crew? Doesn’t matter; the result is the same.
Brad Pitt? What can I say about his role? On the one hand he was the rock solid killer who loved being in his tank, calling it “the best job I’ve ever had” with barely an aftertaste of sarcasm. He was the most amoral of the bunch. But at the same time he showed odd lapses into humanity that didn’t seem to fit his “Wardaddy” persona. I’m not sure if he were a hero, a psycho who loved war, or just didn’t care whether he lived or died.
Nor am I sure of the movie’s politics, if it had any. All the immoral acts we saw on the screen were committed by Americans. Ordinary German soldiers and civilians were portrayed as victims; only the SS committed similar acts of inhumanity, and they were presented as after the fact. I don’t know if that was intentional or merely a figment of my imagination.
The movie is structured similarly to “Saving Private Ryan” and there are similarities in characters, although “Ryan” masterfully tones down their flaws.
In the end, I’d give “Fury” a solid B. I enjoyed the action sequences and special effects, and the attempt to tell more than just a story. I was put off by some of the character extremes and the apparent dilution of thematic consistency.
Mladen Rudman is a former journalist and technical writer. Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.
The afternoon was cold, and Jeff Newell was trembling.
“We get to go flying!” he enthused, rubbing his hands together, his voice rising and falling in a little boy’s sing-song. The freezing wind mattered little. More important was the aging World War II bomber “All American,” a B-24 Liberator of the type that had brought ruin to Hitler’s Third Reich.
The last of its kind, “All American” is maintained by the Collings Foundation a warbirds preservation group in Massachusetts. Mr. Newell was one of three Daily News journalists invited to fly the short hop between Panama City and Crestview.
Later he would write about this flight, and through his story the American wartime experience – and many other things that cannot be put to words – would be passed along to a new generation of Daily News readers.
Which was Mr. Newell’s talent as a journalist: bringing to life the arcane, from matters of history to the complexities of city government to court cases dense as hundred-year-old fruitcake.
In our Fourth Estate world of deadlines and fact-checking, Mr. Newell was a reporter’s reporter – relentless digger who knew what questions to ask and where the answers were hidden. He performed this duty at newspapers across Northwest Florida, from Pensacola to Panama City.
He was honest and fair and dedicated to the relating of facts, a simple ethic that endeared him to readers and sources alike. If you read it in a Jeff Newell story, you knew it was true.
His job never darkened his enthusiasm for life, be it flying on an airplane, playing trumpet in the community band or hamming it up with shortwave radio operators around the world.
This same enthusiasm carried Mr. Newell through the emotional and physical roller coaster of cancer. During the years he waged war with that disease, he displayed a dignity, patience and strength that inspired everyone around him.
Jeff Newell died on July 15, 2001.
Of the World War II veterans who came to see the B-24 “All American” on that 1998 visit to Panama City and Crestview, he wrote”
“They show up for just one more glimpse, searching in the polished aluminum for a reflection of the best days of their lives.”
Mr. Newell was very much like that old airplane: a rugged, reliable classic who got the job done.
Search the pages of this newspaper and we hope you will see a reflection of his character – his hard work, his honesty, his dedication to the craft of journalism. He will not be the last of his kind, but he will always be the best.
In the days when stories were filed by telegraph, it was the practice of reporters to end each transmission with a “30,” indicating the story had come to an end.
It is with fondess, and sadness, that we call an end to Jeff Newell’s time with us. He will be missed.
– 30 –
This editorial was published in the Northwest Florida Daily News in July 2001 and is used with permission.