Director Christopher Nolan uses all the elements: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire and immerses the audience in war, specifically WWII. Without using any computer-generated imagery, Nolan reenacts the rescue and the non-rescue of soldiers at Dunkirk.

The film, simply named “Dunkirk”, uses sound over dialogue, the mundane over the heroic, and patient waiting in constrast to spritely action. When hundreds of thousands of men and women are sitting ducks for the German war machine, we see the problem from three arenas: land, air, and sea.

The Hans Zimmer sound track is beautiful. The sounds of war totally deafening. The strings quicken the heart and create a-tonal suspense. The percussion beats repeat and terrify. We are there. Our ears are assaulted; our eyes field the battle.

Again, the elements are forceful, emotional, practical, and logical. There are 400,000 servicemen waiting for a transit miracle. Most are young. They must eat, drink, and poop. They must be lucky for screeching bombs and elementary target practice can spray more than sand.

No historical framework is given except for the place and the year, no one character moves the plot, no dialogue illuminates the scenes. We see men running with stretchers, life preservers doled out by nurses, and tea and peanut butter and jelly bread offered below deck. We learn that one stretcher takes the place of seven servicemen.

“Fish in a barrel” is another metaphor used to describe the situation found on the Dunkirk beach. Small boats are needed to ferry men to the destroyers. Mark Rylance plays the stalwart British citizen, who along with his son ( Tom Glynn-Carney ) and a neighbor boy rescue a shell-shocked pilot (Cillian Murphy) from the English Channel. Rylance and Glynn-Carney recross the Channel and carry back numerous survivors. Rylance shows the carry-on, stiff upper lip spirit like no other. Lies are told to give a weary soldier a few more hours of peace. Father and son are heroes in action and in psychology.

Here is suspense on all three fronts. Tom, played by Fionn Whitehead, is stable, moral and sound. A grounded boat becomes a hopeful vehicle for Tom and a dozen men. They just must wait until high tide carries them aloft the waves. Too much weight has a few demanding the sacrifice of others. Bullying ensues to devastating effect. Frantic swimming, flaying, and suicide, all are seen.

Tom Hardy’s realm is the cockpit. Running low on fuel, he masters the enemy and sacrifices his plane for the Allied cause.

There are successes. Kenneth Branagh is the Navy Colonel in charge. He understands that luck is in play. He organizes lines in quiet misery. Oil-soaked men are set on fire indiscriminately while others see Dorset and the White Cliffs of Dover.

Being immersed in war in a salvage operation is harrowing. Director Nolan crafts an evacuee thriller that puts viewers in the middle of a battle to retreat. Plugging holes on listing ships and cockpits filling with water are not as horrific as viewing fear in the faces of young, helmeted men. This film works as realism in a large-scale rescue operation. The cinematography is all blues, browns and grays. This French beach in the spring of 1940 will be remembered because of the faces that stood there, and Nolan who let us stand with them.

“Their Finest”

Pacifist war movies are quite the thing this year, and I am glad.  ” Land of Mines” ( reviewed here April 6, 2017  ) and “Frantz” ( reviewed below) are two examples.  ” The Ottoman Lieutenant” ( Reviewed March 14th, 2017) and “The Zookeeper’s Wife” ( reviewed April 12th, 2017) are two more. Dutch, German, French, and now British films mark the way for wartime reflection after the fact. “Their Finest” is not a very memorable title, but the re-visiting of wartime film making is: inspire a nation with a story.

What could be better than 700 boats rescuing 338,000 men ?! Dunkirk with an artistic hook.

Making a film to counter the brutal and dispiriting reality of war must be up-lifting and authentic so goes our storyline. A Welsh lassie named Catrin Cole (Gemma  Arterton) is just the girl to get it done. She is hired by the British Ministry of Information to aid Tom Buckley ( Sam Clafin) . Catrin is to include a convincing female viewpoint and uplift a nation. “Putting fire in their bellies” morphs into putting love in our stars’ hearts, but a sparing romance is only one part of our story thread.

Independent women, acting, writing- the humanities all support the cause of making a war movie during war. These are bullet makers of the metaphorical kind, who will inspire a nation. Catrin has problems of her own as she supports her artist/lover ( Ernest) and handles his second-bread-winner status and the tension this causes. Her mantra of ” I earn” still roils some men today. One of my favorite lines comes from their interchange after Ernest is found in bed with another woman. As Catrin speedily removes herself from their garret, Ernst jumps from the bed and follows her. He asks for understanding and then says, ” maybe I shouldn’t have painted you walking away”. Catrin coolly answers, ” maybe, you shouldn’t have painted me so small.”

Amid air-raid practice films, watching the brainstorming of three screen writers is half the fun. Tom, played so well by Clafin, is a cartoon scriptwriter, brutal and rather dispiriting. Catrin is hired to write ” slop”, the name given for female dialogue! One movie storyboard reads: boat, beach, twins. The next idea is changed to hero, dog, and safely home. Dunkirk and the civilian boats that come to the trapped soldiers’ rescue will be the setting and the action. Tie the film-making during wartime to romance, and we have a film that is tragi-comic.

Criticisms from the bureaucracy over the script are humorous. To portray engine failure may cast doubt on the expertise if the British. Catrin is grand at incorporating small, authentic details like a Frenchman attempting to kiss one of the woman boat rescuers. Feminism is underscored with the crisp lesbian secretary telling Catrin that ” a lot of men are scared we won’t go back into our boxes.”

What could be funnier than an aging, narcissistic actor parlaying a leading role?!  Bill Nighy ,as Ambrose Hilliard, commands the screen the same way he demands to drop his ” corpse role”, a star dead before act three. His ” mirror practice” is hysterical as is his mentoring the toothy American actor. Yet, it is our aging thespian who seems to understand the power of the dramatic arts. He instructs the deflated and grieving Catrin with, ” We have these opportunities because men are lost”.

Jeremy Irons plays the minister, who wants an American in the film, even though there are no Americans at Dunkirk. One of the reasons for this inclusion is because over ninety million Americans view a film once a week compared to thirty million Brits. Americans are the brunt of many jokes. ” No barbells for the American” being one. ” Can the American’s teeth be real?! “Just pretend you are Errol Flynn. He can do anything.”

One of the most striking effects of “Their Finest” is the British ethos of ” staying calm and carrying on”. The film’s cinematography, the frames tinted in browns and blues, reinforce a shared sacrifice and the reality of bombs exploding everything into ash. When Tom turns up the music so he can drown the bombs out, we see this spirit, too.

Danish director Lone Sherfig has our emotions roller coasting  throughout the film. She shows women taking charge on and off camera. The London Blitz and Dunkirk are revisited in a unique way both highlighting the arts and the ladies. Beautifully acted and enjoyable fare.