on Dunkirk, a masterpiece

I saw Dunkirk last night, in IMAX — the way you, too, should see it. Because it is one of the best movies I have ever seen, and it deserves to be seen at the proper scale.

Christopher Nolan’s greatest work is technically ambitious, riding a spare script and largely anonymous cast to create a movie of incomparable intensity that delivers a powerful emotional payload.

I can’t stop thinking about it. I haven’t, in fact, since I left the theater last night. So I’m going to write down some stuff about it, and see where that gets me.

I.

My favorite style of painting is impressionism. (Sometimes, I phrase this belief of mine as “the only good kind of art is impressionist” — but I’m trying to be more inclusive.)

A great Monet painting captures the beauty of reality, despite not striving to capture reality down to the finest detail. Through abstraction, we see the greater truth.

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I think that’s what Nolan is doing in Dunkirk.

One of the first things I noticed is that the lighting in scenes — particularly in those set on Dunkirk beach — is often inconsistent from shot to shot. A scene that begins under heavy cloud cover might then be bathed in hazy sunlight or feel more like dawn.

This felt, initially, like a practical choice, given the difficulties of shooting on actual beaches with minimal computer-generated effects. However, on reflection this feels more like an intentional choice by Nolan. He’s aiming to capture a feeling — the disorientation of being stuck on a beach, waiting for either deliverance or death — and inconsistencies in lighting only heighten that feeling.

Throughout the movie, Nolan chooses ambiguity over detail. I could not tell you the name of a single character, and a quick pop over to IMDB informs me that some major characters are literally unnamed — Cillian Murphy’s character is called “Shivering Soldier.” Somehow, this choice works (which I’ll talk about more in a couple of paragraphs).

There’s almost no mention of military strategy or tactics, or the relative positions of the Germans and the British. Instead, Nolan keeps it simple. The British are surrounded, and the unseen Germans are going to destroy them all if they don’t evacuate.

All we’re given to go on is the three-part structure, each with its own timeframe — the beach (one week), the sea (one day), and the air (one hour). The timeframes are never purely in sync. The one moment, late in the movie, that we see from all three angles is not shown in cross-cut, but rather from one perspective at a time.

What we get, instead, are impressions. We get disorientation. We get fear. We get tension — more tension, frankly, than most of us can handle — followed by some of the most powerful moments of catharsis I’ve felt in a motion picture.

Like a great Monet, the impressions are more powerful than reality could ever be.

II.

The most common criticism of Dunkirk, upon reading some critics and IMDB commenters, focuses on the characters. One reviewer stated: “as a film it lacks emotional firepower due to the absence of a strongly written protagonist […] it’s impossible for this film to not feel cold and empty.”

To start with, I was crying at the end, so clearly some people don’t find it cold and empty. And maybe it’s unfair to go after a reviewer who gave Batman v Superman: Punching in the Rain seven out of ten stars.

But let’s parse this “strongly written protagonist” nonsense.

If I were being completely uncharitable, I would suggest that “strongly written protagonist” in this review is standing in for the desire for a “heroic” character. A man — a strong man — a strong man with a big-ass gun who kills lots of Germans despite overwhelming odds. Maybe he has a wife at home, or a kid, or some other emotional attachment that makes hims “strongly written.” Maybe he has some really obvious flaw that leads to some sort of comeuppance late in the second act, followed by third act redemption. Wow. So strongly written.

Nolan is doing something more subtle than that here, something that adds to the deeper meaning of the story.

Dunkirk, fundamentally, is about survival in the face of overwhelming odds, the things the need to survive does to people, and whether survival can be a victory in its own right.

Each of the characters wants to survive because they’re human beings. Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles’s impossibly young soldiers, Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden’s flying aces, Mark Rylance’s ordinary sea captain, and Murphy’s shellshocked soldier aren’t supposed to be special in any way, or in some way marked by their past or their relationships. They’re just people in an impossible situation trying to work their way out of it, reacting in different ways.

You see them struggle, throughout the movie, with choices. Do I try to sneak on this medical boat? Do I kill a young man who doesn’t speak English? Do I keep flying even as my fuel has started to run out? And so on. Their actions, even when not expressed through words reveal more about their characters than a small Polaroid of a young English lass in Hardy’s cockpit ever could. There’s no fact we could have learned about their past — save a perfectly dropped detail about Rylance’s character — that would have improved their character arc. That’s the mark of a strongly written protagonist.

Again, Nolan is using these stories to build to a more general truth, a broader moment of catharsis.

He paints in broad strokes, sure. But they’re strong strokes.

III.

My grandfather, Peter G. Andrews, was in the Royal Navy in 1940 — the year Dunkirk takes place.

Originally stationed upon the HMS Edinburgh, he was there when that ship was sunk by torpedoes in 1942.

Though he passed away in 2014, I still remember his story about the sinking. Forced to jump from his ship to a neighboring ship, over the frozen North Sea, his main consideration was to not end up with two broken legs. After making the jump, and finding his legs unbroken, he realized his mistake.

He had had enough time to fetch his heavy winter coat before the Edinburgh sank — and now, on a ship near the Arctic Circle he would be very cold.

I’m, of course, paraphrasing a bit. But he always told the story with the sort of nonchalance and dry British wit that characterized all of his stories. Maybe seventy years of hindsight will give that to you.

What you don’t always feel, in the stories and even in many war movies, is a sense that you are just a microscopic part of something bigger. War is basically too big for any one of us to actually comprehend. Instead, we’re left with the small moments of personal victory — of triumph and sacrifice, maybe, but also just staying alive for long enough to tell your story.

Dunkirk somehow captures that feeling, and it’s a function of Nolan’s impressionistic choices in both style and character. (It’s also, of course, down to a team of fantastic collaborators that are outside the scope of what I want to talk about here, but particularly Hans Zimmer’s score and Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography stand out as contributions that deserve little gold statues next February).

That’s why the end — which I won’t discuss in detail — hit me so hard. The end is triumphant, as the story of Dunkirk has always been in the British national mythos, but it’s also intimate and personal. The feeling of relief that the characters feel as they drink a cup of tea — the same feeling that the audience feels that the gunfire has finallystopped — is universal.

It’s how my grandfather might have felt. It’s how any one of us might have felt.

We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

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Peter G. and Peter F. Andrews, approximately 1995.

 

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Very brief reviews of the books I read at the beach

I recently returned from Rehoboth Beach, where I spent five days lounging with my family and reading books. Here are my brief reviews of the eight books I read.

Note: Reviews are based on the grading system at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. I trust that these reviews will be informative to you, the reader, as transcripts from my school would be.

Reviews

My Beloved World, Justice Sonia Sotomayor: HH

The Science of Interstellar, Kip Thorne: CR

The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu: HH

Point Made: How To Write Like The Nation’s Top Advocates, Ross Guberman: P

Stories of Your Life, Ted Chiang: H

Lincoln In The Bardo, George Saunders: H

TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time, Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz: CR

Straight Man, Richard Russo: P

The music in Age Of Ultron is really bad

It’s rare to enjoy a movie, actively, for almost the duration of its running time, and yet walk out of the theater feeling a little cold.

But that’s how I felt about Avengers: Age of Ultron, the most recent movie in a long series of movies with a colon in its name — a series which will continue with Terminator Genysysys, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War, and presumably its companion film Gone With the Wind: Civil War.

(This isn’t even counting the already-plotted pair of sequels to Age of Ultron — Avengers: Infinity War Part I and Part II.)

Though I have enjoyed most Marvel movies individually, collectively they have one flaw that particularly irritates me: they have terrible scores. The score for Age of Ultron, primarily credited to Brian Tyler, felt like little more than placeholder music. Tyler’s film credits “have grossed over $7 billion,” according to Wikipedia, but I doubt anyone went to the last four Fast and Furiouses or the Expendables “trilogy” to hear Tyler’s music. Danny Elfman also gets a credit for his work polishing Alan Silvestri’s theme from the first movie, the sole decent piece of music in Ultron.

Great scores are something that can truly elevate a movie, and its something that stands in stark relief when you compare Age of Ultron to two movies which share certain strands of its DNA: The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight.

Joss Whedon said while making this movie that he wanted Age of Ultron to capture the darker, grander feel of Empire. You know what Empire had going for it? One of John Williams’s greatest scores, including two iconic themes heard for the first time — the Imperial March and Yoda’s Theme. These two pieces completely transform the film, giving Darth Vader and the Empire a fresh bite of malice while deepening the mysticism surrounding Luke’s training with Yoda on Dagobah.

The Dark Knight is the second film of the most critically-acclaimed superhero movie trilogy of all time, and it is often (in my mind correctly) considered the greatest superhero movie ever made. It is often contrasted as a “darker” and “grittier” movie than any of Marvel’s offerings. It, too, benefits from an epic Hans Zimmer / James Newton Howard score, an innovative series of compositions which includes some truly memorable themes. It’s tough to imagine Heath Ledger’s Joker without the building, whining scream of guitar noise that announces his presence. Zimmer is unafraid of using bold, almost tuneless pieces that ramp up the tension and lend the film its distinct ambience.

After watching Age of Ultron, I can’t tell you whether or not there’s a specific theme or motif for Ultron, or the Vision, or any other character. Even if they theoretically exist within the score, they’re not particularly memorable or distinctive. This lessens the power of individual scenes (i.e. the face-to-face encounter between Ultron and Iron Man, or the moment when the Hulk chooses not to return to Black Widow), and contributes to the paint-by-numbers nature of some of the action sequences.

Combined with an extremely weak ending — seriously, the scenes at “New Avengers Facility, Upstate New York” are varying levels of both boring and annoying — and a dull mid-credits scene, and Age of Ultron didn’t leave much to chew on as I walked out of the theater. As much as I enjoyed most of the movie, I didn’t find it particularly memorable, and Marvel’s unwillingness to commit to the details that shape great films is a big part of why.

Some other thoughts:

  • I cannot believe the line “You know I support your Avenging” wasn’t played for laughs. It’s so self-evidently ridiculous, and this movie is on-the-nose about every other ridiculous thing that happens…
  • Ultron himself, played by James Spader, was the best part of this movie. The concept of “an evil robot trying to take over the world who has the voice and tics of James Spader” works perfectly, and I enjoyed almost all of his screen appearances.
  • This movie had too much track-laying. And I know that’s how Marvel movies work these days, but I never felt like (to pick an example) Captain America: The Winter Soldier was just moving pieces around the board. But the whole sequence where Andy Serkis popped up is clearly supposed to be a thing but I didn’t really get it, and whatever Thor was doing for most of this movie is clearly supposed to be a thing but I didn’t see Thor: The Dark World so I didn’t really get it, and Thanos’s cameo in the mid-credits scene is just a reminder that this movie is merely a pit stop on the way to juicier offerings. I recognize the goal is to set-up future movies, but it’s a disservice to the film and its viewers to do that at the expense of the current movie. This is especially ironic given that Whedon explicitly criticized Empire for “committ[ing] the cardinal sin of not actually ending.” Pot, kettle, etc.
  • I quite liked Man of Steel, which if you believe certain corners of the Internet is a belief that I am alone in holding. It’s cool, I don’t take it personally. Zack Snyder takes a lot of crap for that movie, but I give him credit for making something that has clear directorial choices and style. There’s an argument over at The Dissolve that the final battle of this movie was a direct response to Man of Steel. If so, is that something we really want to celebrate? It’s extremely convenient for the Avengers that the city in the final battle is located in an otherwise deserted valley, that just enough SHIELD ships arrive to save almost every single person, and that the team’s obligatory casualty is easily the least-developed character. We get plenty of shots of Captain America looking heroically stoic and refusing to not save every single civilian, but this was almost a catastrophic tactical decision on his part, because if he miscalculated every single person on Earth would have died! To get to the point, at least Man of Steel makes you feel like there are actual, serious stakes, which it looks like will be fleshed out even further in Batman V Superman. Not something you can say for any of the climactic battle in Age of Ultron.

Some thoughts on Man of Steel

A movie about Achilles: Man of Heel

A movie about Bambi: Man of Veal

A movie about Justin Timberlake: Man of Biel

A movie about FDR: Man of Deal (credit Ben Sheng, @cbbsheng)

A movie about Tebow: Man of Kneel (credit Ben Sheng, @cbbsheng)

A movie about Madoff: Man of Steal (credit Ben Sheng, @cbbsheng)

A movie about Dan Marino: Man of Teal

A movie about a traveling preacher: Man of Zeal

A movie about Hitchcock: Man of Reel

A movie about Tropicana: Man of Peel

A movie about a ship captain: Man of Keel

A movie about Emeril Lagasse: Man of Meal

A movie about a carnival barker: Man of Spiel

A movie about Stevie Wonder: Man of Feel

Okay, I think I’ve just about beaten that to death.

(p.s. I really enjoyed Man of Steel, though I enjoyed even more the new seats installed at the 84th Street AMC theater — they recline completely. )