Provoking a desire for audiences to watch a movie again in order to further study how all the narratives connect isn’t exactly a badge of storytelling honor. Writer/director Christopher Nolan continues his march to cinematic glory with two lofty experiments within one compact and technically thrilling WWII film in Dunkirk (B) and sometimes succeeds in spectacular spurts. Nolan employs two unconventional approaches in telling the story of stranded British, Canadian, French and Belgian soldiers retreating to safety across the English Channel in small boats when large watercraft are sitting targets. One of these hat tricks – creating a war movie without showing any of the German army antagonists on screen – might have been enough. But by depicting three intercutting stories on a trio of timelines – newcomer Fionn Whitehead as a soldier in a weeklong journey across land and sea (where an inert Kenneth Branagh as a naval officer plots events from a pier), Mark Rylance as a citizen on a one-day timetable guiding a pleasure boat into enemy territory to save as many servicemen as possible and Tom Hardy as an ace flier engaged in one hour of hitting enemy targets from the skies – Nolan scores a paradoxical panorama that is intriguing but shuts out emotionally satisfying undercurrents. It’s fun to treasure hunt for how the three sub-stories interact, but to what end? The technical triumphs of tick-ticking musical tension (a restrained Hans Zimmer), ultra-real sound design, eye-popping stunts and the general eschewing of typical battle tropes such as backstories or motivations all contribute to the firm’s originality. But in trying so hard not to state the obvious, Nolan forgoes characterization nearly completely. In a story that’s basically about caring, he doesn’t give entry points for audiences to invest specifically in any of the individuals in the collection. So it’s a glorious visual piece of impressionism, an agile brain teaser and a so-so war thriller. Blunted by bland fictional characters standing in loosely for real-life heroes, the film is a new form of cinematic Sudoku in which the major victories aren’t given much ado while Nolan counts his creative flourishes.
An epic true tale of faith has met its match in a filmmaker for whom fire and brimstone are merely a prelude, and the power and singularity of his vision on screen cannot be denied. Director Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (B) is a tough mudder of an action movie, hearkening to the actor-turned-director’s own roots in Peter Weir’s WWI classic Gallipoli and imprinted with a world-weary POV applied to WWII’s Battle of Okinawa. Funneled through Gibson’s prism of gore and glory, the film is far from subtle but nonetheless audaciously moving. At the center of the proceedings – and key to its believability – is Andrew Garfield’s knockout portrayal of real-life American hero Desmond Doss, whose Christian beliefs prompted him to become a conscientious objector to violence simultaneous to enlisting in the military as a medic without a gun. Opening sequences feel like a Whitman’s Sampler of giddy nostalgia that would give Forrest Gump a run for his money in treacly sweetness. But soon after dispensing with some basic training melodrama, the film quickly detours into a fog and slog of war and a series of difficult decisions and riffs on themes of sacrifice and redemption. The director is adroit at putting the viewer in the heart of the action, relating to the protagonist’s fear and faith of being disarmed in the face of encroaching force. Aside from casting Vince Vaughn against type as a droll drill sergeant, the filmmaker rounds out his ensemble with sterling British and Australian actors ranging from Sam Worthington to Hugo Weaving to a relative newcomer, the delightful Teresa Palmer. The images of war are among the most suspenseful and sensational committed to screen, with the titular ridge, flanked with a mountain-high netting leading infantry to setbacks and triumphs, among the splendid set pieces. The sheer duration of some of the sequences dull their impact, but the fight choreography is second to none. Many will love the film’s messages but be turned off by the graphic violence; others repelled by Gibson will miss out on a poignant story. The auteur has once again found the pulse of an incredible and inspiring brave heart.
One of the most acclaimed Hungarian films in recent years tells the tale of a father endeavoring to bury his son, but there’s so much more to the story. László Nemes’s chilling you-are-there style Holocaust drama Son of Saul (A-) takes viewers deep into horror and chaos where a heroic dad’s singleminded mission to provide a proper burial for his offspring is complicated by his role as a Jewish prisoner inside a WWII Auschwitz Concentration Camp where he serves as part of the “Sonderkommando” unit that disposes of the dead. Told within stifling quarters over the course of less than two days in 1944, the story is focused on Saul’s leviathan task while he fends off SS-guards and smugglers in his midst as the burial and even overall escape becomes either elusive or imminent. Much falls on the shoulder of lead actor Géza Röhrig, and he is magnificent in a muscular role requiring few words. Nemes’ direction often relies on tight close-ups and sound effects that prompt viewers to fill in an even more terrifying complete picture. Told with the propulsion of near-constant motion, it is an extraordinarily effective glimpse into history. Due to some of the labyrinthine plot details that undergird the narrative, the emotional core occasionally gets short shrift. It is essential viewing in this historical sub-genre and a harrowing, insightful experience.
Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (B) has one of the most amazing, bloody and grueling first twenty minutes of war re-enactments ever committed to film with its beach invasion of Normandy. Unfortunately, the remaining film featuring a search for the title character is rather pedestrian. Tom Hanks and an ensemble of Hollywood A-listers lead the charge to find Ryan (Matt Damon). The remaining film includes a series of exciting and nostalgic episodes but not a one that again matches the opening sequence.