Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Nolan Watch: Dunkirk (2017)

These days, I'm not writing up every movie I've seen.  And I'm not going to write up this one.  But I'm suggesting you catch this one while it's still in theaters.


Jake Shore said...

Good film. Surprised at the lack of blood and gore compared with other modern war flicks. Also, it was an interesting choice not to show (except for the Luftwaffe), or scarcely even mention the Germans ("the enemy"). I think it worked, I'm just curious what was behind the choice.

The League said...

Nolan's never been one to linger on the grotesque, but I also noted that the deaths in this movie were largely bloodless. It was almost as if the dying simply disappeared out of frame and you knew they weren't coming back.

To that point, Dunkirk feels less like a war film (there's no arc about anyone's sweetheart back home, nobody talking about life back on the farm) and more like a survival film against an existential threat. You're right, we don't see the Germans. And I don't think that's to humanize them so much as to make them "the other" - a horde about to descend, removing all hope. Because in most ways, what matters is how the soldiers were saved and pulled off that beach. It's those boats and the pilots that needed a face.

I *know* many won't like that take, if I'm reading Nolan right, but I like to think that's what was going on.

Jake Shore said...

One of the criticisms of war movies like Blackhawk Down, several Vietnam movies and even some recent films about the war on terror is that the enemy are people of color depicted as hordes of nameless other, fit only for dying in large numbers. The irony is that Germans and Nazis are (outside of aliens) perhaps the only villains who you could depict in this way without any pushback.

The League said...

I am in agreement, Jake. You could show Nazi after Nazi getting blown up, and I wouldn't blink. It's a tough one. We have no shortage of movies showing Nazis in all different lights, so I'm not sure it's a cultural problem that created Dunkirk- although there are certainly some critics of Dunkirk who have pointed out white-washing of the events of Dunkirk. I was one of those people who watched "Blackhawk Down" and thought "huh, they're really treating the locals like James Cameron treats a xenomorph". Given the average American's knowledge of WWII versus what we were doing in Somalia, I think there was a difference, and maybe that's the wrong standard. But it is difficult. I mean, it's not like we ask Star Wars to tell us what's going on with those literally faceless characters under the Stormtrooper helmets (and note how many fantasy/ sci-fi/ superhero films put their enemies in faceless masks).

I do try to be pragmatic when it comes to criticisms about race and villainy in a film. I still recall a film instructor I had who was *furious* the Middle-Eastern terrorists in "True Lies" were Middle-Eastern terrorists. And while, yeah, they likely could have been from anywhere - it's not like in 1994 I wasn't aware of the existence of Middle Eastern terrorists. Whether that made them *easier* to kill or worthy of killing becomes an almost epistemological question. I'm glad the film instructor asked the question and made us think, but I'm not sure there's ever been a good solution to say it's okay to show any bunch of people as worthy of being killed en masse by any other group of people (see: the "Clerks" Death Star contractors question). But it's also part of both real life and movies, and I don't have any good answers.

Jake Shore said...

It is interesting that in action films since 9/11, Hollywood has been, with the exception of films about the actual wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, very reticent to depict Middle-Eastern terrorists as villains even though Islamic terror has been our greatest existential threat in that time period. Instead, for nearly two decades, the villain de jour in modern Bourne, Bond, Taken, Mission Impossible, Clancy films and the like, has been Eastern Europeans/Russian dissidents. In the hierarchy of global intersectionality, they fall very near the bottom (despite the cultural diversity within), lacking the necessary racial/ethnic/gender/sexual orientation credentials that amount to a legitimate grievance with their portrayals in film.

I'm not complaining or advocating. I don't pretend to care more about hurting the feelings of Serbs or Albanians than any other American. I just find it amusing that instead of fighting in the quiet cold war with China, battling Islamic terror, or petty dictators with nukes, James Bond is still fighting Russians and Europeans terrorists. Recent stuff with Russia makes a more compelling case for them, but still. The villains were more diverse during the Cold War; Mr. Big in Live and Let Die, Sanchez in License to Kill. Since then, the only exception would be the North Korean Colonel in Die Another Day, and even he is white by the middle of the movie.

There is wanting to be thoughtful and mindful of how artistic portrayals of people may negatively/positively impact the audience's perception of said people, or reinforce ugly stereotypes. Then there is straight up identity politics. Then there is slavish prostration to the bottom line (see Red Dawn remake).

Anyway, I'm getting into the weeds.

The League said...

I caught part of the 1984 "Red Dawn" this weekend (and it is terribly, terribly depressing)and was wondering what they did for the remake. I have no idea. I'll need to check it out.

I find these questions about filmmaking and what we decide to show and why incredibly interesting, and you raise some excellent points here. And it'll doubly interesting once you remove a film from the period by a couple of generations and people try to piece together why our films were so far removed from the actual news. Maybe this will continue and they won't have to ask, they'll just understand it - but as a lens of the period in which a movie is made, it's not capturing the same image as current events.

Jake Shore said...

The remake was originally made with the Chinese taking the place of the Soviets as the villains, which makes sense, because they are the only player on the world stage who could conceivably invade us. Well, after everything was in the can, the studio saw the film and decided it wouldn't play in China. With receipts so dependent on the global market, offending the Chinese could potentially lose them billions. They told the director to go back and change the Chinese to North Koreans.

That's right, the Hermit Kingdom crosses the Pacific and sneaks by the most powerful Navy and Air Force in history (and the web of satellites that cover every square inch of the planet), and mounts a surprise attack on the USA.

So the filmmakers went back and replaced Chinese with North Korean in the script, then had to go frame by frame and digitally alter the film so that the insignia, colors, etc. all matched the North Korea.

What about the Chinese actors? No problem, they all look the same anyway (apparently).

The film is pretty awful regardless, but I feel bad for the director. He was not happy about it. The absurdity of change sucked the enthusiasm out of the built-in audience here who was gearing up for it.

The League said...

The look on my face is something like: jaw hanging, eyes popped, vague look of horror

That. Is. In. Sane.