Tuesday, August 1, 2017


As the ongoing announcements of TIFF titles reminds us, Oscar season is fast approaching. But before the onslaught of the fall releases, one infamously overdue director is already staking his claim for recognition. With his unbearably intense "Dunkirk", superstar director Christopher Nolan may finally break through for an hitherto elusive Best Director nomination.

World War II dramas have long been catnip for Academy voters, from "Twelve O'Clock High" in 1949 to last year's "Hacksaw Ridge". Hope springs eternal for Best Picture contender "Dunkirk" then, which fits the bill not just thematically but in quality too. As the title suggests, "Dunkirk" depicts a pivotal moment in the war, when Allied soldiers were left stranded and cornered by the enemy in the region of Dunkirk. With little help on the way, the outlook looks grim for the thousands of men hoping for deliverance on land, air and sea. Through the perspectives of 3 such groups of men, "Dunkirk" thus takes us through their grueling experience. On land, a young British private (Fionn Whitehead) awaits evacuation on the beach of Dunkirk as German forces continue their relentless attack. In the air, Royal Air Force pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) and his small squadron engage the Germans in combat, though fuel and reinforcements remain in short supply. Meanwhile, a man named Dawson (Mark Rylance) answers the call to aid in the evacuation, setting sail for Dunkirk from the safety of Britain with only his inexperienced son and a teenaged assistant as support. With their backs against the wall, all of these men must play their part to achieve one objective - survival.

Indeed, "Dunkirk" sets itself apart from other war films by focusing not on violent displays of heroism but on humble retreat. While doing so, Nolan immerses us in the terrifying experience, dropping us right onto the beach like an unwilling soldier. As if to answer his critics, there is little exposition or backstory aside from a few opening lines of text explaining the current situation. What follows is therefore a taut, nerve-wracking experience and one of Nolan's most lean, consise films to date. For diehard fans like myself however, it also means a somewhat disappointing lack of originality in the script. Apart from the non-linear structure (which will likely reap a Best Editing nomination), this is a fairly straightforward survival story.

But what the film lacks in screenwriting ingenuity, it more than makes up for in technical mastery. Indeed, Nolan takes the term "theater of war" to heart, acting as the conductor for an astonishing cinematic symphony. Rarely has a war film felt so visceral, as Nolan recreates the sights and sounds of World War II with remarkable skill. Thanks to liberal use of wide shots, the cinematography conveys the enormity of the war with expansive vistas of land and sea. You can definitely expect Hoyte van Hoytema to be in the mix for his first Best Cinematography nomination.

Though these visuals and Nolan's direction are worthy of praise, the true MVPs of "Dunkirk" are actually composer Hans Zimmer and the team of sound editors. Much of the film's intensity is due to Zimmer's pulsing, agitating score, which perfectly captures the "ticking clock" nature of the evacuation. And if any viewers walk away from the film with PTSD, they have the frighteningly effective sound effects to thank. Oscar nominations for Best Original Score and Best Sound Editing would therefore be well deserved.

As with any Nolan effort, the filmmaking is top-rate all around, with many other fine aspects worthy of mention. Mark Rylance for example, could net another Best Supporting Actor nod for his steadfast performance. And though it's not his most memorable script, the satisfyingly cathartic conclusion will surely find some love in the Best Original Screenplay race. Indeed, this may finally be Nolan's year to steal the Oscar spotlight. There will certainly be several challengers to come, but for now, awards season has an early frontrunner.

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