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‘Dunkirk’ a non-stop adventure

From the first frame of “Dunkirk”, the action doesn’t stop until the film’s conclusion. Just under two hours long, the film is a breathtaking war story that never lets its foot off the gas pedal.

400,000 soldiers are stranded off the coast of France in Dunkirk, their home of England visible just over the channel, but they can’t get there. German planes are picking them off on flybys and the enemy army is steadily advancing in on them. The film follows three sets of characters; one set on land, led by young Tommy (Fion Whitehead) trying to survive on the beach, one in the air, led by Farrier (Tom Hardy) trying to protect the troops on the ground from German aircraft, and one coming in from the sea, a commercial yacht piloted by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), tasked with trying to rescue the troops. Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) on the beach overlooks the entire operation with despair and yet a slim ray of hope; perhaps rescue will come from home.

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, the film is a tale of tension rather than carnage. It is rated PG-13 so the blood and massacre of other war films is not as omnipresent or visual. This is rather a story of avoiding that horror.

Time plays a central element in the narrative, always seemingly ticking in the background. The time of the incoming tide, characters constantly checking their watches, Farrier’s declining fuel supply in his fighter jet; all tick by over the course of the story. This ratchets up the tension as we clock down to the possible annihilation of our heroes.

The film really puts you in the situation. Through the wide and precise cinematography and deafening sound (it may be the loudest movie I’ve ever seen), the war and dread come to life. Everything in the film appears shockingly real. Though we know there are visual effects, they are hard to point out in comparison to so many other films who blatantly use CGI, but in a way that points to the effect being man made.

The story is relatively simple, and there are seemingly barely 50 lines of dialogue in the whole film. It is really more about story told through action, and the film keeps going at full-speed the entire time, barely letting the audience catch their breath. This is both well-done and a bit overdone.

The film is not so much about war, but about determination, representative of the defiant British spirit. It is a story of perseverance in the face of slim odds, told in grand yet intimate scale. The three different storylines intersect at the conclusion in a grand rescue that gives meaning to Winston Churchill’s famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech.

‘Bridge of Spies’ heartfelt if less than great

Bridge of Spies is Steven Spielberg and Tom Hank’s fourth film together. Saving Private Ryan (1998) is a modern classic (despite its flaws). Catch Me If You Can (2002) is a fun ride. The Terminal (2004) is admirable if largely forgettable. As the two have gotten older, their choices of projects have changed, but they both still seem to be intrigued by history and reflecting the past onto our present. Bridge of Spies feels like a story told by two friends who see a world bent on blood for blood, who see reason and negotiation falling by the wayside, replaced by pride and force. It is told by older and wiser men, the style and acting very subtle, building up simple moments of suspense, such as waiting for a telephone call. The result is a solid, if unspectacular film.

James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is an insurance salesman (formerly part of the prosecution at Nuremberg) who is tasked with defending a known Communist spy. Hated by most Americans for standing with such a man, Donovan simply states that all men, whatever their crime, should be met with dignity and justice as ordained in the Constitution. When a U2 spy plane pilot is shot down and captured over the Soviet Union, Donovan is presented with a unique opportunity; he is recruited by the CIA to negotiate a trade of his Communist spy for their American pilot.

Spielberg is in no rush with his storytelling. He glides smoothly from introducing the spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), to his trial to introducing the U2 pilot to the negotiations between nations. It is both refreshing and a bit maddening at times. A good half hour could have been cut out of the film (especially during the first act), but the deliberate pace really lets you examine the political atmosphere and think about the ideas in the film: Do foreign agents deserve the same rights as legalized Americans? What is the value of a single, innocent person in comparison to the pride of nations? Is standing for your beliefs no matter the cost worth it if you put your life and the lives of your family at risk?

Spielberg and writers Joel and Ethan Coen and Matt Charman answer these questions with solutions of heartfelt understanding and respect for all people. Whether or not one’s personal view is similar is besides the point; they are presenting a vision of cultural respect and rule of law that they believe in. As the world still deals with suicide bombers, illegal immigrants, enhanced interrogation techniques and opposition to nuclear deals, the film is very timely and worth examining. Some may resent the ego of Hollywood idealism attempting to impose its views on a complex world, but few will find fault with its sentiments.

Hanks carries the film in an everyman kind of way that is easy for the viewer to relate to. Given free range to really define his character as he travels from Washington to East and West Berlin and back, his good nature and simple belief in everyone deserving a fair shake is distinctly American in the Jimmy Stewart, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-sense. Indeed, the film feels like an homage to the simple morality films of the 1950s and 1960s; fair is fair, right is right.

What could have really helped however is some form of ticking clock. There is tension throughout the narrative, but a deadline of some sort that drives Donovan would keep us on the edge of our seats. In addition, we are barely given a glimpse into the true horrors of the world Donovan is entering into. There are some moments with East German gangs and prisoners attempting to escape past the Berlin Wall, but a storyline involving prisoner Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) could have been fleshed out more to show individuals in the crosshairs of a world out of control. The result feels like a dampening down of the truth.

And then there’s the Spielberg schmaltz. It was mostly kept in check during Lincoln (2012), but it returns at times in Bridge of Spies with a vengeance. Why Spielberg can not just let the story tell itself is baffling. He must for some reason have multiple endings that overdramatize his narrative past the breaking point.

But all in all, the story is interesting and solid, its heart is in the right place, and it proves that Spielberg and Hanks still know how to churn out a good film. And that’s what Bridge of Spies is; good, not great. Not among the year’s best, but certainly something worth remembering.