Saving Privates Not Named Ryan | Episode 67

Posted July 21, 2017

With the film world abuzz about "Dunkirk" this week, we paired the new war epic from Christopher Nolan with two other military rescue films: "Behind Enemy Lines" and "Black Hawk Down." After Noah shares the story of his transcendental evening with Phish, we dig into "Dunkirk" and argue over whether Nolan's manipulation of time is a gag or a successful bit of orchestration. At 25 minutes, we're joined by Nolan superfan and friend of the pod Joe Kozal, who lays down a "Proposal" about where the auteur is at in his prestigious career.

We parachute "Behind Enemy Lines" at 37 minutes, wondering if Owen Wilson sprinting a whole bunch qualifies as a dramatic performance. Plus, an old friend of Chance's sends in a great Owen impression. We wrap up around 50 minutes with "Black Hawk Down," discussing the Ridley Scott film's confusing international politics and two dozen recognizable actors.

We'd encourage you to check out Joe's killer band blét here, and find a written review of "Dunkirk" below, if that's your thing. 

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-review by Chance Solem-Pfeifer

In a film landscape where, say, two dozen names evoke the stylish, literary, original work associated that tricky word “auteur,” Christopher Nolan is perhaps the only one currently guaranteed to attract moviegoers who do and don’t know his name.

In reimagining Batman, the 46-year-old director both cemented his career and paved the way for Hollywood franchises to not use their imaginations for the next 10 years. (“Insert a blaring anti-melodic drone, I guess? Throw in a parent’s untimely death for meaning? Have the villain give a seemingly ideological speech with nothing beneath it?”)  

He’s also magnificently scrambled, defied, and toppled the narrative expectations of moviegoers three different times — with Memento, The Prestige, and Inception. He possesses M. Night Shyamalan's devotion to twists with Ridley Scott’s attraction to grandeur. He’s a moody atavist behind the camera but never so grouchy that he doesn't seek to give the audience theatrical pleasure. And as Noah and I have noted, he probably enjoys thinking of filmmakers as modern-day magicians.  

The biggest question walking into his retelling of The Battle Of Dunkirk was just, why this, Christopher? Why would the man who represents everything new and dark-minded about popcorn filmmaking want to make a Clint Eastwood movie? What does the brooding craftsman of the unreliable point of view want with chronicles of WWII valor?

The answer is not that Dunkirk is vastly different than you think. It is as the trailers have advertised: visually gorgeous, liable to make you feel pneumonic. Granted, the history is relayed through some Nolan-isms, namely three combat timelines unfolding at different speeds, eventually aligning with a flourish. But the film’s uncomplicated themes of hope and empathy feel almost novel coming from Nolan. And at two hours in length, its greatest attribute may be a property for which Nolan never receives compliments — his restraint.

Pitching the historical stakes of Dunkirk is easy. Nearly half-a-million Allied troops were trapped on the titular French beach by the unstoppable first wave of Blitzkrieg. With shores too shallow and skies too dangerous for the navy, civilian boats from England executed a mass evacuation. Had the army been annihilated or captured, it would have been a potentially fatal blow to Britain’s war effort. And though the director has Brits on hand who can deliver one hell of a table-setting monologue — Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, and Tom Hardy — Nolan doesn’t put these stakes in an actor’s mouth.

Rather, he divvies them into microcosms, small quagmires that speak to the impossibility of surviving the English Channel at your back, Panzers at your front, and dive-bombers overhead. Yes, Dunkirk was a historical event of epic proportions. But Dunkirk was also a half-drowned gaggle of teenagers trying to launch a boat while plugging bullet holes with their palms. Dunkirk was a crashed pilot trying to flee his cockpit before the aircraft sank into the Channel. Dunkirk was a day-sailor's yacht chugging into a possible U Boat infestation in the hopes of playing ferry. Every survivor has a different story of how they almost didn’t make it.

If you’ve read anything about Dunkirk at this point, it's probably been about the relatively bloodlessness of the film. To nab his PG-13 rating but still render a movie of weight and torture, Nolan prioritizes the eeriness of physical spaces in his three combat theaters. The beach is vast and pristine, but lingering on it is a death warrant. Legions of shivering troops stand in dangerously neat lines because that’s what infantrymen instinctually do, like geese in a V pattern. An evacuation ship is cozy and dark — womb-like until the moment it’s tomb-like. A Royal Air Force fighter is freeing and kinetic, but surviving a fire fight in one is a crapshoot. The terror of potentially dying inside a tin can is brutal enough to undo the need for graphic violence. Nolan renders the crescendoing whir of a Stuka more sensorially taxing than most images of a bloody wound or lost limb could be.

On sand, water, and air, the three timelines all follow an avatar or two. Some are recognizable — notable for Wolf Hall or Henry V, crooning through a Bane mask or crooning in One Direction — but the famous faces are treated the same as the as-yet-anonymous ones. Nolan has made a movie about military hierarchy in breakdown, the commander as helpless as the grunt, but the most orderly idea left is that bombs and torpedos treat every human body with sobering equality.

While the readiest criticism for the film might be that the characters are devoid of personality, it’s easy to believe battle has done the robbing. Any war film worth its salt in 2017 will have PTSD on its mind and demonstrate how psychological scarring happens in real time. Tension and dread have created new biorhythms inside and all around the soldiers. Dejected men duck for cover during a beach-straifing and then dispassionately stand back up like mindless, exhausted jacks-in-the-box. Behind their story, frequent Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer, who has long been a purveyor of the two-note haunt, white-knuckles his way through a score that largely mimics a palpating heartbeat.

It all feels real, but the film isn’t out to argue that point so much. Nolan loves making films, and he's quite aware this is one. It’s reassuring to know that one our great contemporary directors isn’t banking on the boring old promise of realism. The true trick (the, uh, prestige) is how he transforms the end of Dunkirk into Hollywood glory when it’s been so stark, so emotionally measured for the first 90 minutes. While history holds no breathtaking third-act surprise, it's a slow-burning twist when the Zimmer alarm-system score builds into an unexpected opera and the desperate, flailing bodies we’ve been following all film turn into a nation. Here, Nolan’s decision to tell the film non-chronologically hits paydirt. The timelines disorient and excite and quite possibly confuse, but when they come back together, their alignment speaks to Dunkirk the movie and Dunkirk the event as miraculous convergences.

Grantland’s Chris Ryan once presented a bifurcated theory of war movies: they’re either “reportage or poetry.” They’re either Platoon or Apocalypse Now, a re-creation or a meditation. Nolan is unquestionably trying for the former category with Dunkirk, but the movie still lands on the outskirts of that group. It isn’t trying to tell us about the cost of bravery; it’s extolling the virtues in seeing your home again in 1940, come what may in 1941. Even calling this event “The Battle of Dunkirk” feels like a misnomer invented by historians who mark time with conflict names and dates. What is a war movie that focuses solely on a retreat? What’s a World War II blockbuster that never looks upon the enemy, in which the word “Nazi” is never uttered?

Nolan’s body of work is reliable for asking more questions than it answers. We may remember the super villains and complicated flashbacks of his filmography, but Dunkirk asks us to recall that there have always been ordinary people in his films, unifying against the rising tide. His quiet certainty here is worth embracing. Why question the meaning of war when there is only one answer to its cruel face? Live.


All The Movies We've Reviewed

101 Dalmatians
10 Cloverfield Lane
10 Things I Hate About You
127 Hours
22 Jump Street
47 Meters Down
Across The Universe
A Dangerous Method
A Few Good Men
Air Force One
A League of Their Own
Alien 3
Alien: Covenant
Alien: Resurrection
American Animals
American Hustle
American Made
American Psycho
American Splendor
A Simple Plan
A Single Man
A Star Is Born
Atomic Blonde
Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me
AVP: Alien Vs. Predator
Baby Driver
Baby Mama
Bad Company
Bad Lieutenant
Bad Moms
Bad Santa
Basic Instinct
Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice
Beasts of No Nation
Beauty And The Beast
Before Sunrise
Behind Enemy Lines
Black Hawk Down
Black Mass
Black Panther
Blade Runner 2049
Bleed For This
Body Heat
Boogie Nights
Bridge of Spies
Bull Durham
Call Me By Your Name
Captain Fantastic
Catch Me If You Can
Chariots Of Fire
Chasing Amy
Child's Play
Christmas Vacation
Cinderella Man
Con Air
Cool Runnings
Crazy Rich Asians
Crimson Tide
Danny Collins
Dante's Peak
Dead Poets Society
Deep Blue Sea
Deep Impact
Deja Vu
Demolition Man
Dirty Dancing
Donnie Brasco
Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot
Dude, Where's My Car?
Easy A
Eddie The Eagle
Ed Wood
Employee of the Month
Erin Brockovich
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Event Horizon
Everybody Wants Some!!
Executive Decision
Ex Machina
Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them
Fatal Attraction
Field Of Dreams
Finding Forrester
For Love Of The Game
Friday Night Lights
Game Night
Gangs of New York
Garden State
Gone Girl
Gone In Sixty Seconds
Grosse Pointe Blank
Hail, Caesar!
Half Baked
Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle
Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban
Head of State
He Got Game
Hocus Pocus
Hollywood Ending
Hot Tub Time Machine
How High
Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Ingrid Goes West
Inherent Vice
Inside Man
Inside Out
In The Land Of Women
In The Line of Fire
Into The Wild
I, Tonya
Jaws: The Revenge
John Wick
Jurassic Park III
Jurassic World
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Kill Bill, Vol. 1
King Cobra
Kingdom Of Heaven
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Lady Bird
La La Land
Leave No Trace
Less Than Zero
Lethal Weapon
Little Miss Sunshine
Love & Mercy
Love, Simon
Mad Max: Fury Road
Mamma Mia
Matchstick Men
Midnight Special
Million Dollar Arm
Mission: Impossible
Mission: Impossible - Fallout
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Mission: Impossible II
Mission: Impossible III
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
Mississippi Grind
Mo' Better Blues
Mom and Dad
Money For Nothing
Moonrise Kingdom
Mr. Mom
Murder at 1600
My Cousin Vinny
National Lampoon's Vacation
Never Say Never
Ocean's Twelve
Old School
One Hour Photo
Open Water
Orange County
Out of Africa
Part of Me
Peter's Friends
Phantom Thread
Picture Perfect
Practical Magic
Public Enemies
Purple Rain
Raising Arizona
Red Dragon
Red Eye
Red Sparrow
Remember The Titans
Reversal Of Fortune
Rock Of Ages
Run All Night
Save The Last Dance
School Ties
Scream 2
Simply Complicated
Sleepaway Camp
Small Soldiers
Snakes On A Plane
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Southside With You
Space Jam
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
State and Main
Step Up
Steve Jobs
Sweet Home Alabama
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The Addams Family
The Big Chill
The Big Sick
The Bling Ring
The Brady Bunch Movie
The Campaign
The Cell
The Cloverfield Paradox
The Color of Money
The Disaster Artist
The End of the Tour
The Family Man
The Fast and The Furious
The Fighter
The Flintstones
The Fly
The Fog
The Fugitive
The Fundamentals of Caring
The Hateful Eight
The Hate U Give
The Holiday
The Hours
The Hunt For Red October
The Illusionist
The Indian In The Cupboard
The Insider
The Judge
The Jungle Book
The Last of the Mohicans
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
The Lost World: Jurassic Park
The Martian
The Matrix
The Matrix Reloaded
The Matrix Revolutions
The Meg
The Mexican
The Mighty Ducks
The Mission
The Mosquito Coast
The Muppet Christmas Carol
The Natural
The Negotiator
The Nice Guys
The Night Before
The Pagemaster
The Perfect Storm
The Poseidon Adventure
The Prestige
The Queen
The Recruit
The Revenant
The River Wild
The Royal Tenenbaums
The Rules of Attraction
The Shadow
The Shallows
The Sixth Sense
The Social Network
The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three
The Thing
The Truman Show
The Watch
The Witches of Eastwick
This Is Where I Leave You
¬°Three Amigos!
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
To All The Boys I've Loved Before
Tropic Thunder
Van Wilder
Varsity Blues
V For Vendetta
Welcome To Me
While You Were Sleeping
White House Down
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Wild Things
Wild Wild West
Win It All
Without A Paddle
Wyatt Earp
Young Adult
Zack and Miri Make a Porno