In Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan tells three inter-twined stories of differing lengths and at different speeds, showing how the terrors of war and heroic acts associated with it can exist on various time scales. There are instantaneous acts of heroism, the bread and butter of war films, but also more considered, lengthy heroics on day or week-long scales. Nolan ties them all together by interweaving all three timelines into three separate but related stories of the Battle of Dunkirk. This structure is the overwhelming brilliance of Dunkirk, but Nolan also manages to pack each story line with startling action film-making on land, sea, and air. The result is a masterwork of structure, pacing and storytelling, replete with themes of warfare, heroism, and the true meaning of victory.
The satire is the most fragile of all the genres. Drama fails or succeeds on the strength of very definite qualities like story, character, and pathos. Comedy has leeway with its execution on account of its casual tone, as even the blackest comedies have a jokey kernel. Strict genre fare or action is even more forgiving: as long as the film hits a few key points, we enjoy the parts that hit, and dismiss the parts that miss (i.e., the recent Mad Max, which is awesome yet fairly bereft of story). But with satire, if certain elements are missing – a unifying vision, a stylistic conceit, or even a single performance – then the product just feels off. So is the case with War Machine, the Netflix film from Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B Entertainment. Though the satirical aspirations of this send-up of the War on Terror are apparent and welcome, there are simply too many missteps.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
-Thomas Grey, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,1751
Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory is often celebrated as the director’s first true masterwork. Adapting a novel of the same name by Humphrey Cobb, Kubrick’s film contemplates power struggles, justice, and the wastefulness of war. The crux of the story involves three French soldiers who are court-martialed for cowardice after retreating from an impossible attack, but Kubrick’s story is not a mere anti-war film. The trite idea that “war is bad” is taken as a given, and augmented by multiple impressive cinematic and storytelling techniques into an even more powerful statement: there is an utter absurdity to war, one that incentivizes an habitual abuse of power and a routine miscarriage of justice.
Sometime in the near future, someone is going to stumble upon Allied in a Redbox or on a premium cable channel, have no idea what it is about, and end up liking the movie just fine. Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard turn in reasonable performances, there is a surprising amount of detail to the plotting, and the ending is reasonable (if a little slap-dash; endings are hard). Unfortunately, this movie is absolutely ruined by its trailer. Of course, explaining why means delving into some pretty serious spoilers myself, which will also ruin the movie, but Allied isn’t so great to begin with, so it is no real crime there. In fact, I can think of at least two spy movies starring Brad Pitt that are better than Allied (Spy Game and Inglourious Basterds; and yes it is).