Some Ramblings - Dunkirk by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
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The plan was simple and straightforward, at least on paper. Capture a few bridges along a 60 mile stretch of single road highway in Netherlands en route to a German town that manufactured much of the munitions for the war. The strategy was to drop 3 parachute regiments (British 1st Airborne, American 82nd and American 101st) to sieze and hold the three key transits and then have the ground cavalary march through the enemy lines on its way across the Rhine to the German town, Ruhr. That the whole plan was conceived by the British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, who along with his American counterpart General Patton, became the face of the resistance opposing Hitler's grandiose ideas for world domaination, and who was also instrumental in delivering the first blow to the Axis powers in the Northern beaches of France at Normandy, during the famed D-day invasion, lent much credibility to this war game. After all this was 1944, a full five years after the war has started, and Germans were already on the backfoot losing ground rapidly. What could go wrong? They say, wars are won and lost on supply lines/chains. After the initial blitz of air bomarbardment or army assault, which any military worth its salt is capable of devlivering, if the effort cannot be sustained by a steady supply of ammunition, rations and personnel, the gained high ground could quickly be ceded rendering all the intial effort futile. And that's exactly what happened with this plan, Operation Market Garden. The 35,000 or so troops who had been air dropped at the 3 key segments became sitting ducks to a bulked up German SS Panzer tank divisions, who quietly picked them apart as target practice and the whole operation which was supposed to be concluded in 2 days straight, became a ten day nightmare for the Allied forces, who were depleted in food, resources, men and morale. Less than half returned back in one piece, soundly beaten, and the plan which was aimed at ending the war before Christmas 1944 to bring the boys just in time for yuletide concluded in a spectacular failure. Second World War wasn't all victories, hurrahs and rah-rahs, in fact, it was only during the last year of the war that the tide turned in favor of the Allied powers. And lost in the footnotes of the eventual win in the war that ended all wars, were all these missteps, misadventures, miscalculations, strewing unmarked graves and pristine tombstones  away from home all over the world.

'Dunkirk', less adventure and more humanitarian effort, is about the evacuation of around 400,000 troops - British and French - this time from the beaches of the eponymous city to 26 miles across the English channel to safer British shores. What makes the monumental task even more chilling, was Churchill's calculation for just 30,000 of his troops to make it across, ready to fight the next battle. Pushed to the last vestiges of the land by advancing the Germans, the sea of humanity waits on the shores helplessly for help from across the pond, all the while facing perils from the bombers in the air and torpedoes, while at sea. In the able hands of Nolan, 'Dunkirk' turns into a race against time, more like a game of rapid-chess, where pawns are first picked off with some ease (by the hail of periodic fire from sky), the heavier pieces, destroyers and rescue trawlers, handled by their (maritime) counterparts (torpodoes from U-boats), and the looming ground forces closing in for the final kill with each passing hour. Inter-cutting these three sequences (his favorite M.O.), presenting the same event across varied perspectives and throwing in the jumping around in time, Nolan creates an panoramic experience of the evacuation, making it both clinical and immersive at the same time.

The air: Dogfights in Hollywood movies have always been more about valor and glamor. The pilot (usually the hero) chatters loudly with his fly-mate on the radio and the squeeze of the trigger almost always become the killshot, followed by a victorious whoop. But when airplanes whiz by in excess of 500-800 miles an hour, the perspective of the fighter pilot is one of never-ending blur and more time is spent tailing the target to get in the crosshairs or craning the neck around looking for one, than tittering on the radio or squeezing the trigger. Nolan rightly takes away all the glamor out of the dogfight and closes in on the partial view of the pilot, against the vast expanse of sea, all the while with one eye on the falling fuel guage. The bravery of those pilots in going for that one extra sortie, even if it means nullifying their chances of safe return, when they witness the danger of the enemy bomber advancing towards its target, make them the true heroes of the effort. And for all that, like the good deed that never goes unpunished, the pilot gets pulled up by the surviving troop after the harrowing experience and asked in frustration dripping incredulity "where were you?".

The sea: Large and slow moving, attack and rescue boats in water are sitting ducks, and surely picked off with some ease by enemy beneath and above. If rescue by air is bravery, the rescue by sea is all sacrifice, when calls for help are answered by civilian boats, the weekend cruisers, which step up and rush into the war zone knowing fully well the consequences. Heroism here doesn't come in any armour or ammunition, plain sweater and tie. This sequence anchors the other two (air and land), and it is here the cross-cutting gets both exhilariting and engaging, what with the shifting of the time and perspective and all. This technique is bound to polarize (and confuse) the audience, particuarly when the action becomes more and more chaotic. Nonetheless, the choice of this technique is certainly warranted, considering in a true war scenario, events do not queue up in a sequential fashion, but get out of hand pretty concurrently.

The land: This is where it gets wrenching, the wait. The rescue boats are never enough, the air cover is barely there, and the supplies are fast dwindling, more when there are close to half a million mouths to feed. And this is where the direction gets even masterful. Nolan fills the air with deafening silence, with only the crashes of waves against the piers, and the ominous drone of the incoming bomber once in a while breaking the dead air. The dialogue is sparse and justifiably so. When everyone knows what he is up against, what is there to talk about! As against the panic and pandemonium of the Normandy beach invasion, where the incoming troops on to the beach are picked off one by one by gun nests perched on high altitudes, the beaches of Dunkirk are a never-ending procession of slow moving funerals, of ones washing off the shores killed at sea and ones razed to the ground by the bullets from the sky. Ably aided by his trusted lieutenant, Hans Zimmer, the almost metronomic score starts off with a steady rattle at the start of each event and as forces close in and death becomes imminent, it gains a feverish intensity making the moment even more claustrophobic and breathless.

Despite the war background, ‘Dunkik’ is not about war, not about the politics of it, and interestingly, never is a German face shown nor is he referred to by his nationality. This is a survival story and like many other survival stories, it is not selfishness when people try to jump over the others in lines, push others in front of the incoming, or fight with their brothers for that last place on the leaving boat. By keeping the proceedings near sterile, sans the usual high-strung emotions guiding the conduct and behavior in such circumstances, the tone is muted down greatly filling it with a sense of inevitability, either of death or of hope. The only quibble in an otherwise fantastic presentation is the clunky dialogue specially towards the end, where the conversations are too much on the nose about survival, when none could have served it just fine. The tone of the dialogue also runs contrary to an otherwise meditative presentation, where the viewer is almost kept at a distance for much of the feature to merely observe and marvel (?) than become involved in it at a personal level (contrast it to the first person's perspective of the first twenty minutes of Normany invasion in "Saving Private Ryan"). Same goes with the trawler boat sequence where a bunch of privates turn against each other, when bullets start to rain all around (Nolan already treaded this ground before in "The Dark Knight" in the joker's test of human's forgiving capacity involving rigging up 2 boats and placing the detonator's switch in each other's hands sequence). But for these minor complaints, 'Dunkirk' is a solid piece of history, movie and otherwise, from a confident filmmaker in supreme control and command of his craft.

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