Posts Tagged war films
Year of release: 2017 Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Fionn Whithead, Damien Bonnard, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy and Kenneth Branagh.
Dunkirk is relentless. I say that as neither praise nor criticism, but as mere statement of fact, much in the same way one would say Les Miserables is a musical or Gone with the Wind is the longest Best Picture winner or Mad Max: Fury Road is an epic car chase. Dunkirk is relentless, and that is clearly something of which Christopher Nolan is proud.
Nolan has so clearly accomplished exactly what he wanted with Dunkirk that the film is in many ways critic-proof. Sure, it’s possible to say one dislikes it, and it’s also possible to rave about it as the best film of the year. In both cases, the writer will be revealing more about themselves and their personal tastes than the film, and they will not be acknowledging that the film strikingly and stunningly achieves everything it wanted to, so if there are aspects one dislikes, those are not filmmaking weaknesses.
The same goes for Hans Zimmer’s score; one can love or hate his incessantly pulsating soundtrack telling the audience exactly what emotions to feel in each scene, but it’s impossible to deny that the score massively aids in the creation of the tense, heart-pounding atmosphere that Zimmer and Nolan worked so hard to achieve.
Watching this epic historical rescue mission condensed down to a taut, nerve-racking hour and forty-six minutes is a cinematic experience like no other. Seeing Dunkirk on anything other than the largest screen possible will be watching a mere shadow of Nolan’s vision, much like listening to an mp3 of a Beethoven symphony through a mediocre ear bud will only convey a fragment of Beethoven’s genius.
Before I continue, let me state clearly that I think Dunkirk is an astonishing achievement. Early buzz hinted at its staggering realism in making the viewer experience the reality of war first hand. While it undeniably makes the viewer experience the events of the story first hand, it is not a war film, and it doesn’t convey the cost of war or the notion that war is hell, at least not in a traditional sense. Instead it places the viewer directly in the midst of a dangerous and desperate rescue mission, showing the cost of victory, bravery, and heroism, clearly demonstrating that there is nobility in capture or retreat. It is that rescue mission the viewer survives along with the characters.
And it is a rescue mission to behold! There were several times I gasped believing I was really present. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema captures the beauty and the menace of the sea and shore, the simultaneous threat and salvation they provide to the soldiers, which is important considering the Nazis are never once seen in the film, but their absence coupled with the danger of the Dunkirk beach makes their looming proximity felt all the more.
The rescue mission takes place on land, sea, and in air, with each portion of the rescue occurring in its own timeline – a week for the almost 400,000 soldiers stranded at the Dunkirk beach, a day for the British sailors coming to their rescue across the Channel, and one hour for the pilots attempting to shoot down Nazi planes. Nolan cuts between the three storylines and timelines effortlessly, much the same way he did with Memento, and when he brings all three together at the film’s climax, he finds the best of all his cinematic interests. His puzzle crafting skills and humanist interests serve one another in an inspiring way I would not have believed possible.
The film’s climax was truly the make or break moment for me, and in my opinion Nolan pulled it off in spades. I had spent the eighty minutes prior to that unsure whether I loved or hated the film. It was easy to admire the intensity and purity of Nolan’s vision, so stunningly captured, yet the shock and awe of the proceedings, while admirable at first, were stretching me to my breaking point, which I think was Nolan’s intention to reflect the ordeal of the soldiers. Then the climax arrived, and with it, not only the dispersion of the tension, but a beautiful moment of hope celebrating the sacrificial virtue of the rescuers, acknowledging the heroism of retreat, the triumph of capture, and the victory in loss of a battle. The simple line uttered by Kenneth Branagh’s navy captain with joy and gravitas underscored all those sentiments perfectly.
At that moment there was also a stark change in the score, as Zimmer’s driving pulsation gave way to a soaring string melody using Elgar’s theme from the Enigma Variations. Hearing that theme was a welcome reprieve from the intensity of the prior cues, but more importantly, the grandeur of one of the most famous British musical themes captured the importance of taking the soldiers home away from the war while mirroring their own relief, which again, I believe was the point.
Watching this film projected on 70mm IMAX, I had to remind myself to breathe on several occasions. Not only was the tension so great that it seemed as if the viewer were surviving the rescue mission alongside the soldiers, but there were many breathtaking instances of beauty to behold as well. Regardless of how one feels about Nolan forcing his audience to experience a soldier’s point of view in way no other film has done, Dunkirk is undisputedly bold and daring cinema. It’s a film I can honestly say I loved, even while acknowledging it is not one I’ll revisit too frequently.
Personal Recommendation: A-
Content advisory: Extremely intense, but non-graphic war time violence; a few crass words MPAA rating: PG-13
Suggested Audience: Teens and up.
Year of release: 2017 Directed by Doug Liman. Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena, and Laith Nakli.
Two soldiers, a sniper, and a crumbling stone wall. As Scott Renshaw pointed out, this scenario basically writes and films itself, which makes the occasional stumbles all the more frustrating. Even with those stumbles, director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow) does a good job of milking this premise, crafting a tense thriller in which a cat and mouse game is set against the backdrop of the “won” Iraq War.
Criticism of the Iraq War and the notion that there could be any victory from that mess abounds throughout the film. The first title card tells us in 2007 the USA declared victory and the war was over, but the irony and dishonesty of that claim is highlighted by the opening shot of two soldiers camouflaged as they observe an oil pipeline where soldiers had been ambushed by an attack. Later, when the sniper hacks their radio signal, he asks them what they’re still doing in his country if the war is over. Finally, the closing shot will remain one of the most surprising conclusions of any film this year, and it strongly reinforces the notion that the Iraq War is unwinnable.
The film’s politics are unmistakable, but they are never heavy handed, and they provide added tension to the confrontation between Sgt. Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the unseen sniper (Laith Nakli). Less successful is the backstory for Sgt. Isaac which is hinted at throughout the film, but when it’s made explicit in the last act, it comes across as a half-baked attempt at guilt and trauma which adds nothing to the psychological and physical standoff between the soldier and the sniper.
The other major misstep of the film is the scriptwriter Dwain Worrell’s decision to make the sniper a genius psychopath more knowledgeable than Hannibal Lecter who knows everything going on inside Isaac’s head, has orchestrated his plan to the last unexpected detail, and is fazed by literally nothing. Eventually, the characterization begins to approach caricature.
However, the cat and mouse game is largely successful due to the commitment of the actors and Liman’s skilled directing. At ninety minutes, the film moves along briskly even as it never changes location. I questioned the wisdom of a couple cuts to the sniper’s point of view – they really dissipated the tension – but otherwise, the editing brilliantly redirects our attention from the one soldier to the other, to the wall, to the corpses scattered around the pipeline, and to any possible location of the sniper. Liman knows precisely where to place the camera to achieve a balance between knowing what is happening and feeling just disoriented enough to share in the soldiers’ confusion and discomfort.
The Wall doesn’t make the most of its premise, but it gets enough out of it to be an engaging and thoughtful thriller with a worthwhile cross examination of the costs of invading Iraq, and Doug Liman proves his chops for directing action sequences once again.
Personal Recommendation: B-
Content Advisory: Frequent obscene language, intense violence, including brief but graphic images of bullet wounds.
Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment
Year of Release: 2016 Directed by Anne Fontaine. Starring Lou de Laâge, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza, and Vincent Macaigne.
This review will not spoil the central plot point around which the story of The Innocents revolves. That plot point is revealed about twenty minutes into the film; however, even though it is technically not a spoiler, it is still something I believe should not be known going into this film. Consequently, there may be a few places where I am more vague than I would otherwise like to be.
A few months ago, several of my friends and fellow film critics started praising The Innocents enthusiastically. Most frequently, I heard comparisons to Of Gods and Men and Ida. While both comparisons are apt, the comparisons that most struck me were to three novels: Song at the Scaffold by Gertrude von le Fort, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Silence by Shusaku Endo, which has a film adaptation by Scorsese coming out in one month.
As a story about a convent of nuns suffering various forms of persecution as the result of a war, the similarities with Song at the Scaffold struck me immediately, with the main difference being The Innocents is set in Poland in the aftermath of World War II, rather than the reign of terror during the French Revolution. Some of the nuns’ decisions may be baffling to a contemporary viewer, but if one remembers how badly they have been victimized and as a result no longer trust the outside world, the fear which grips this convent should be more tragic than perplexing.
The main similarity with The Scarlet Letter was something I noticed toward the end. In high school, I read that novel like most American students, and for the paper I wrote I chose the topic how God can bring good out of evil, focusing on the ways in which the community and Hester’s life improved after the affair and public branding. (Don’t ask me for details; that was over ten years ago. I just remember the general gist of my essay.) Likewise, after horrific tragedies and suffering on the part of innocent victims, The Innocents suggests a way in which hope can grow from the darkness, making the world a better place.
Finally, Silence is Endo’s famous novel about faith in the midst of feeling abandoned by God’s silence in the face of extreme suffering. As Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) says roughly halfway through the film, “Faith…at first you’re like a child, holding your father’s hand, feeling safe. Then a time comes…when your father lets go. You’re lost alone in the dark. You cry out, but no one answers.” That feeling of isolation permeates The Innocents, and several of the nuns and novices question their vows and their faith as a result of their sufferings.
Into the midst of this convent in turmoil comes Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), a communist and atheist who has little to no respect for the nuns’ beliefs, especially when those beliefs interfere with the work she has come to do. (I said I’m being vague.) However, through Mathilde’s commitment to the promise she made, she does find a way to work with the nuns. The film may be more sympathetic to Mathilde than the nuns; however, Mathilde’s final climactic idea affirms the primary vocation of the nuns and brings a heartfelt joyful conclusion to the sorrowful events that had preceded it.
Laâge convincingly portrays Mathilde’s sympathy for the nuns, even as she clings to her secular worldview. Her confrontations with Sister Maria’s raw yet steadfast faith overshadow the film, and the two actresses complement each other’s screen presence beautifully. As the cold and steely Mother Abbess, Agata Kulesza (from Ida) serves as a reminder of the dangers both of overly zealous piety and of rationalization for a noble goal. Mathilde may have the least amount of sympathy for the Abbess, but the film refuses the easy temptation to vilify her, even as she makes some appalling choices, one of which slightly stretches her character’s credibility.
Director Anne Fontaine beautifully evokes the cold, desolate landscape of post-war Poland with slow moving, long takes and a bleak, blue-gray color palette, only briefly splashed with reddish browns for dance scenes. The winter setting reinforces that Poland is now controlled by the Communists, a hell possibly worse than the Nazis, and Fontaine does not shy away from those details: from the danger the nuns feel, to the outright contempt that other characters have for them, and to the dangerous encounter Mathilde suffers for helping the nuns.
The Innocents opens with the nuns singing Creator of the Stars of Night, an Advent chant in which one verse says: “In sorrow that the ancient curse/Should doom to death a universe,/You came, O Savior, to set free/You’re own in glorious liberty.” Those words may sound bitterly ironic to the nuns at the film’s beginning, but through the course of this story the hope reflected in the following verse of the hymn becomes apparent to the convent: “When this old world drew on toward night,/You came but not in splendor bright,/Not as a monarch but a child/Of Mary blameless mother mild.”
Personal Recommendation: A-
Content Advisory (spoiler-free version): Non-graphic sexual assault (ends quickly), themes of spiritual abuse, horrific off screen deaths, and some gruesome surgical procedures. Not rated
Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment
Directed by Gavin Hood. Starring Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Aaron Paul, Phoebe Fox, and Aisha Takow.
The principle of double effect, as proposed by St. Thomas Aquinas, is frequently discussed both in freshman philosophy classes and in Catholic theology classes. The classic hypothetical which is used in these discussions is when the train is rushing down the tracks and about to go off the rails unless you pull the lever to redirect the train onto the intact tracks. The catch is that there is one guy standing on the intact tracks, and there is a high probability that redirecting the train, and thus saving the lives of all the people on it, will regrettably kill him.
The problem with hypotheticals is that they do not take into account practical, real life scenarios when one has to make the best decision possible within a short time frame under intense duress. While a fictitious film is still a hypothetical, Eye in the Sky plays out in an intensely realistic fashion which gives credence to both sides of the argument and constructs a scenario in which the difficulties of either course of action are vividly realized. Even more remarkably, after making a strong case for one course of action, the film turns around and makes an equally strong case for the opposite.
The hypothetical in question in Eye in the Sky was made clear in the trailer. British intelligence has numbers 2, 4, and 5 on the most wanted list in their sight; through a hidden camera they can see those terrorists assembling two vests for suicide bombings; they have the ability to launch a drone strike eliminating that threat; however, a young girl is in the street next to the house, well within the fatality zone of the missile.
For a scenario which sounds like it could become riddled with clichés and a moralizing sermon regarding the War on Terror and the US drone program, Eye in the Sky avoids both. It explicitly acknowledges the danger that terrorists pose to the world, and it makes what might be the most compelling argument in favor of the drone assassination program. At the same time, the cost of that program on families, nations, and individuals is powerfully realized, so much that even if the principle of double effect justified the proposed strike, one could still question its prudence or legitimacy.
It is rare to see a film that refuses to take sides in an argument and maneuvers through both sides of that argument as skillfully as Eye in the Sky does. In doing so director Gavin Hood tells his story and leaves the conclusion with the viewer. It is easy to understand the reasoning which says drones are the best way to minimize the violence of terrorists, yet the concept that violence begets violence is always juxtaposed with any arguments in favor of using military force.
Hood’s decision to cast himself as an American colonel who calmly weighs all the options, but has no qualms about following orders, however unpleasant those orders may be, carries that balanced storytelling approach to the cast as well. The other cast members are the typical characters one would expect in such a wartime story. There are two green American drone pilots (Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox) who have never had to fire a missile before, one of whom is starting her first day as a soldier as the titular “eye in the sky.” An on the ground agent in Kenya (Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips) is trying to get as close to the target as possible to gather information without blowing the cover of the mission. There are various officials, all of whom wish to refer the decision up to their authorities so that they do not have to take responsibility. Finally, Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman portray a colonel and general respectively who wish to avoid as many casualties as they can, yet are both pragmatic enough to dread wasting this opportunity.
The film’s ensemble of characters is admittedly large, but Megan Gill’s sharply focused editing makes it easy to keep track of all the characters and maintains a taut pacing which does not relent. One of the most effective moments is when the British intelligence loses one of their cameras; the cut to black symbolizes the dread and mounting tension perfectly. Similarly, the use of silence in place of music for some of the most harrowing moments makes the tragedy and tension all the more palpable. The commitment of both Mirren and Rickman turns their functionally written characters into complex conflicted human beings torn between two bad alternatives.
Finally, the portrayal of the young girl Alia (Aisha Takow) who will be endangered by a missile strike and her family is a beautiful portrait of the world as it should function and how war destroys that. The opening title card states that truth is the first thing lost in war, and while the film depicts rationalizations replacing the truth, nothing is as tragic as those rationalizations being applied to the potential loss of innocent lives.
The desire to minimize the casualties of war is a moral and necessary impulse. However, the way in which we achieve that is every bit as important. That importance is at the center of the moral conundrum in Eye in the Sky, and the film’s choice to eschew both easy answers and demonizing of different opinions makes the cost of war heavily felt as Eye in the Sky relentlessly accelerates toward the end of its mission.
Content Advisory: Gruesome shots of the aftermath of violence, a few utterances of harsh expletives under duress. MPAA rating: R
Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment
Personal Recommendation: A
Thanks to Ken Morefield for publishing my review.