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Hundreds of thousands of British and Allied troops are surrounded by enemy forces, trapped on the beach with their backs to the sea they face an impossible situation as the enemy closes in. RAF Spitfires engage the enemy in the skies above the Channel, trying to protect the defenseless men below. Meanwhile, hundreds of small boats manned by both military and civilians are mounting a desperate rescue effort, risking their lives in a race against time to save even a fraction of their army. (From WB’s official synopsis)

 Dunkirk
I’ve struggled to describe why Christopher Nolan’s films, despite all of their technical brilliance, leave me so frustrated. I once attributed it to their calculated and detached nature, though other notoriously frigid filmmakers don’t have the same effect. It could have something to do with the subtly sinister political underpinnings of his films; though, again, I’m rarely above enjoying the work of politically reprehensible artists. Watching (and hating) Interstellar (2014) for a second time finally forced me to recognize the problem: Christopher Nolan’s specific tastes and skills are tied to his amorality as a filmmaker. Memento (2000) remains his best film because it is his most outwardly amoral. Yes, it’s also good because it’s so cleverly constructed, but note that almost all of its twists are tied to revealing the sociopathy and cruelty of its characters. By the film’s end (or beginning, as it may be), Nolan has turned all of his protagonists into antagonists, yet it still encourages his audience to identify and even sympathize with his lead/their surrogate. This theory also explains why his Batman movies are almost always at their best when focusing on their villains, who either operate outside of a moral perspective or actively mock the very concept of morality. Unfortunately, as one of the most popular filmmakers in the entire world, Nolan is again and again compelled to mimic the moralistic, impassioned blockbusters of his contemporaries.

This brings us to Dunkirk – a true story that promises the possibility of separating the director from his previous blockbuster compulsions with its scope and simplicity. The tale’s inherent stiff upper-lipisms harmonize with Nolan’s rigid wavelength, leaving him open to explore the narrative from an unemotional, suspense-driven soldier’s-eye view of the events. I’m not sure if I’d consider this his best film, but it is one that can be enjoyed on its own merits, rather than the merits of a tentpole blockbuster. Characterizations are weak and its plot is secondary to structure, but, so long as Nolan is sticking to a simple and tightly-knit event chronology, Dunkirk can be breathtaking. He excels with tonal montages that describe everything from broad ideas to relatively intricate technicalities with a minimum of words. Then, any time he tries to engage in the familiar Hollywood instinct to frame historical tales within the less interesting stories of audience surrogates, he falters. Almost without exception, scenes of soldiers silently awaiting their doom or desperately trying to escape gunfire/drowning are infinitely more riveting than any of the (thankfully minimal) moments where characters fight among themselves or argue the meaning of right and wrong – or, rather, the sequences in which Nolan tries to contemplate morality. Fortunately, the film’s terse 106-minute length (a shock, considering the bloated nature of most of Nolan’s movies) leaves little room for wasted time. I hope that future ‘important’ war films take note.

 Dunkirk

Video


As one of Hollywood’s resident digital format haters, it’s no surprise that Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema shot Dunkirk on film. What does make it somewhat unique beyond that is that it was shot using a pretty wide selection of printed formats, including IMAX, Panavision 65mm, and 35mm. In IMAX theaters, the film reportedly changed aspect ratios depending on the format, from 2.39:1 to 2.20:1, 1.90:1, and 1.43:1. This 1080p Blu-ray follows suit, but notably only shifts between 2.20:1 and 1.78:1. Excepting some obvious grading (possibly chemical, more likely digital), the transfer has a clean, natural quality, similar to other Christopher Nolan Blu-ray releases. The differences between the formats are not as pronounced as they have been in the past, though the 35mm scenes do feature shallower details and harder contrasts. None of the footage is particularly sharp, however, which is part of the film’s visual design, not a problem with the transfer. The limited, cooled, largely teal & tan palette is soft and very consistent. Blacks are rich without crushing and the highlights, though muted, still help delineate the important shapes.

Audio


Given the fact that Warner Bros. had been embracing next-generation codecs, especially with their big money titles, I’m surprised that Dunkirk doesn’t come fitted with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack (especially since an Atmos mix was prepared for theatrical distribution). There’s nothing wrong with the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track they have provided, it’s just a little unexpected. The mix takes its cues from all of those other post- Saving Private Ryan war movies with their shocking dynamic range, subjective distortion effects, and multi-directional fury. It works very nicely, which is good for Nolan, who has had significant problems with the murkiness of his sound design in the past. Bullets and bombs rip through the speakers with horrifying impact and punchy bass, while Hans Zimmer’s driving, often dissonant score builds into what feels like a never-ending crescendo (side note: I think this is the closest Zimmer has gotten to effectively blending his theme-heavy instincts with his more abstract tendencies). Dialogue is the one area where Nolan’s past issues with aural clarity and consistency occasionally crop up; though, again, understanding words is relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of this particular film.

 Dunkirk

Extras


  • Creation (22:19, HD):
    • Revisiting the Miracle[/i] – A generalized look at the historical Dunkirk event.
    • Dunkerque – On the film’s use of the real-world beach locations.
    • Expanding the Frame – The filmmakers discuss the challenges of IMAX/65mm cameras.
    • The In-Camera Approach – Concerning the emphasis on physical/practical effects over digital augmentations.
  • Land (16:39, HD):
    • Rebuilding the Mole – The history of the extended pier location and how the production re-appropriated/re-built the location.
    • The Army On the Beach – Concerning casting and the young cast’s experiences on set.
    • Uniform Approach – On recreating and realistically aging the costumes.
  • Air (18:30, HD):
    • Taking to the Air – Nolan and the crew talk about the in-air photography, recreating/refurbishing the original planes using working aircraft, and how to strap an IMAX camera to said aircraft.
    • Inside the Cockpit – A continuation of the previous featurette that explores the process of shooting actors in the cockpits of flying airplanes, as well as the avoidance of blue/green screen for the insert shots.
  • Sea (36:57, HD):
    • Assembling the Naval Fleet – An introduction to the film’s various boats.
    • Launching the Moonstone – A closer look at the ‘hero’ yacht that Mark Rylance’s character owns/pilots.
    • Taking to the Sea – Concerning the trials of shooting on water locations instead of studio tanks.
    • Sinking the Ships – I suppose this title sort of speaks for itself.
    • The Little Ships – A brief chat with the folks that own the civilian boats used in the film.
  • Conclusion (15:19, HD)
    • Turning Up the Tension – A look at editing and music.
    • The Dunkirk Spirit – Final thoughts from the cast & crew.


 Dunkirk

Overall


Dunkirk is the type of cold and calculated filmmaking we’ve come to expect from Christopher Nolan. This time, however, those normally negative distinctions work and even bring out the best in the material. Nolan’s lack of empathy is still occasionally problematic, but, when he sticks to his strengths, his instincts are on point. This Blu-ray release represents the large format photography beautifully, warts and all, features a strong, driving DTS-HD MA soundtrack, and is loaded with significant (if not slightly stuffy) supplemental features.

 Dunkirk

 Dunkirk

 Dunkirk
*Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray, then resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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