Saturday, February 17, 2018

"Detroit" and "Dunkirk"

I knew nothing about the 1967 Detroit riots going into "Detroit," and even less about the Algiers Motel killings. So I was grateful that director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal provided some context for the events, including a short history lesson on American race relations told through a crude animated prologue. However, this push to establish the importance of the events of "Detroit" in American history are also what ultimately end up undermining it badly.

When the film is in the thick of the action, recreating the notorious police raid on the Algiers Motel, it's excellent. The tension is visceral, and the performances are great. There's a good balance between the POVs of the police officers and their victims. The highlights of the ensemble cast include Will Poulter's wonderfully hateable Phillip Krauss, the main instigator of the abuses, while Algee Smith and Jacob Latimore play Motown singer Larry Reed and his friend Fred Temple respectively, two of the detained black suspects. Unfortunately, "Detroit" also decides to dramatize the court case that resulted in the aftermath of the event, which means the film switches gears to a different type of narrative completely. Ultimately the whole thing feels overlong and ungainly, trying to include too much material and serve too many interests. The film clearly wants to be respectful of all the cultural issues involved, and emphasize the systemic flaws that resulted in the tragedy, but it's not particularly successful at this.

I found that the oddest decision was giving only Larry Reed's character a fully fleshed out character arc. The other characters get spotlighted, but most feel truncated or badly planned out. John Boyega, for instance, plays Melvin Dismukes, a black security guard who is a major witness at the Algiers. The film certainly gives him the narrative space and attention to be a major character, but he just comes off as a passive bystander. The script gives him very little to actually do, and we never get any semblance of a full emotional arc for him. Similarly, there are also some good moments with characters played by Anthony Mackie, Hannah Murray, and Jack Reynor, but we don't spend enough time with them for their appearances to actually have much impact on the larger narrative. As impressive as all the historical recreations are and as infuriating as the injustice is to witness, there's a fundamental lack of the kind of emotionally connective pieces that would really help this all hit home.

Now, this is not a problem with Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk," which is altogether a much slicker and more entertaining feature, heavily dependent on epic spectacle and the kind of grandiose Hollywood gilding of momentous events that can easily result in mindless pabulum. Nolan largely manages to avoid being overly sentimental by constructing the film as yet another of his exercises in nonlinear storytelling, and spending the bulk of his efforts on making all the pieces fit together as a coherent narrative, heavy on the action scenes.

Dunkirk consists of three different stories. In one storyline, the soldiers on the beach at Dunkirk await evacuation, which takes place over the course of a week. Our POV character is an English private named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), who eventually joins other soldiers, Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles), as they seek a way home. In the second, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), owner of a small private vessel, sails with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and their friend George (Barry Keoghan), to aid the rescue efforts. Their story takes place over the course of one day. Finally, fighter pilots Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy) engage with German air forces over Dunkirk, over the course of one hour. The three storylines occasionally intersect, but it isn't until the ending that they all properly converge.

Technically, the film is a marvel, full of expansive shots of the sea and sky, multiple aerial dogfights, sinking and burning ships shot from every angle imaginable, and the teeming masses of soldiers constantly in peril. WWII locations and military hardware are recreated in exhaustive detail. However, what I found really impressive was the leanness of the scripting and the efficiency of the filmmaking. "Dunkirk" runs only 106 minutes, one of Nolan's shortest features, and there's hardly a wasted second. He manages to make each of the stories compelling individually, yet completely distinct from each other in style, and then slowly ratchets up the tension simultaneously across all three of them as we reach the last act. Compounding thrills are expertly deployed to a Hans Zimmer score that pumps up the tension with ticking beats and uneasy strings.

The characters are thinly drawn by necessity, and yet there's still room here for Mark Rylance's reassuringly steadfast Mr. Dawson, and Kenneth Branagh's unflappable Commander Bolton. Like "Detroit," there were plenty of others that could have used more fleshing out, but the difference here is that Christopher Nolan had a much better handle on showing us what was unfolding at Dunkirk on a broader scale and using his characters to reflect specific experiences and themes more cleanly. And the storytelling is tighter, smarter, and far more impactful. So when we come to the moments of patriotism and pride at the finale, accompanied by the gorgeous hero shots and exultant music, they feel earned.


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