Category Archives: War Films

Dunkirk-2017

Dunkirk-2017

Director-Christopher Nolan

Starring-Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy

Reviewed July 24, 2017

Grade: A

Of the hundreds of war films that have been made over the years, most have a similar style with either a clear patriotic slant, or, of a questioning/message type nature. Regardless, most  have a certain blueprint from the story to the visuals to the direction- and rarely stray from this. The genre is not my particular favorite as the machismo is  usually overdone  and too many  of the films turn into standard “guy films”, or the “good guys versus the bad guys”. Finally, along comes a film like Dunkirk that gives the stale genre a good, swift, kick in the ass.

The story is both simple, yet historical. In 1940, Nazi Germany, having successfully invaded France, pushes thousands of French and British soldiers to a seaside town named Dunkirk.  With slim hopes of rescue or survival, the soldiers are sitting ducks for the raid of German fighter planes, who drop bombs both on the soldiers and rescue ships. In parallel stories, a kindly British civilian (Mark Rylance) and his son sail to Dunkirk to help rescue the soldiers, and two British fighter pilots chase the German fighter planes, attempting to thwart their deadly intentions.

One will immediately be struck by the pacing of the film as it is non-stop action from start to close. The action, combined with very little dialogue, and an eerie musical score, are what make the film feel so unique and fresh. Directed by Christopher Nolan, (The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception) critics are heralding this film as his greatest work yet- I tend to agree.  Scenes involving such differing musical scores as screechy violins mixed with thunderous, heavy beats, really shake up the film and keep the audience on their toes as to what is coming next.

An interesting facet to the film, and certainly done on purpose, is that the backstories of the characters are not revealed- we know very little about any of them.  Do they have families? Are they married? This is a beautiful decision by the screenwriters and by Nolan.  For instance, the very first scenes involve a disheveled private, named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead).  Panicked, he runs through the streets in pursuit of the beach, where he meets a fellow soldier named Gibson, who is burying another soldier in the sand. Together, they find a wounded soldier and carry him to a departing ship- the men never speak, but communicate through their eyes and gestures-it is  a powerful series of scenes.

Another positive to Dunkirk is the anonymity of the enemy. The German soldiers are never shown. Certainly, we see many scenes of the fighter planes overhead, pummeling the soldiers with bombs, and pulsating gunfire in various scenes, but the mystique of  the enemy troops is a constant throughout the film. The faceless component to the villains adds a terror and haunting uncertainty.  In this way, the film adds to the audiences confusion about where the enemy may be, at any given moment.

The visuals and the vastness of the ocean side beach, forefront throughout the entire film, at one hour and forty six minutes relatively brief for a war film, elicits both beauty and a terrible gloominess. Scenes of the vastness of the beach peppered with thousands of cold and hungry men is both pathetic and powerful.

The best scenes take place on Mr. Dawson’s  (Rylance) mariner boat. Aided by his son Peter, and Peter’s frightened schoolmate, the trio head for dangerous Dunkirk to help rescue, but en route pick up a shell-shocked soldier determined to stay as far away from Dunkirk as possible. This leads to compelling drama and a deep characterization of all the central characters.

Many list 1998’s Saving Private Ryan as tops in the modern war genre, but Dunkirk may very well rival that film in intensity and musical effectiveness. Dunkirk also contains shockingly little bloodshed or dismembered soldiers- it does not need this to tell a powerful story. At times emotional,  the film is always intense and never lets go of its audience from the very first frame. A war film for the history books and a lesson in film creativity and thoughtfulness.

Hacksaw Ridge-2016

Hacksaw Ridge-2016

Director-Mel Gibson

Starring-Andrew Garfield

Reviewed June 9, 2017

Grade: B+

Hacksaw Ridge is considered somewhat of a comeback film for troubled director Mel Gibson, having not directed a film in over ten years. The film received several Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (Andrew Garfield). While the film has a few minor flaws, and despite being yet another exhausting war film, Hacksaw Ridge is quite powerful, mostly because of the warmth and convictions that Garfield breathes into the central character, and real life hero, Desmond Doss. The film also leans anti-war and pacifistic, needed components in these troubled times.

During World War II, Desmond is a young man living in Virginia. With a brother around the same age, they deal with an abusive, alcoholic father and a passive mother. Desmond realizes he has a talent for medical care and, after falling in love with a small town nurse, he decides to enlist in the Army as a non combat medic. After refusing to use weapons and train on Saturdays, he is met with contempt by his commanding officers and fellow recruits. When, inevitably, Doss and his troops are deployed to the Pacific theater during the Battle of Okinawa, Doss becomes a hero when he saves numerous lives on the frightening  “Hacksaw Ridge” in courageous form.

For the first half or so of the film (save for a peculiar opening battle sequence that comes into play during the second half of the film), the action largely either takes place in Desmond’s hometown  of Virginia or at a basic training facility.  We get to know a bit about Desmond’s childhood experiences, his love life, and his love of country and duty. His father, a retired military man himself is damaged- he drinks, beats on his wife, and hits the boys, though Gibson tones down the abuse by not showing much of it. He saves the real gore for later in the film.

The film during the earlier portions has a very mainstream, safe feel to it and I found more than a couple of aspects to nitpick. Desmond’s fellow training recruits are laced with too often used stereotypical, stock characters- the brooding one, the cocky one nicknamed “Hollywood” for his good looks and tendency to walk around naked, the funny one, the strange one, the list goes on and on. Predictably, drill Sergeant Howell (played by Vince Vaughn, now parlaying from comedy roles to drama) is tough as nails. This is a character we have seen in dozens of war films before it and it feels stale as do all of the characters. Some of the jokes used are cheap one-liners like, “we are not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy” to describe new surroundings- Duh, really?. Additionally, there is glaring machismo in the first half that is a negative to the film and it makes the film feel like nothing more than standard fare.

However, the second half of Hacksaw Ridge really drew me in- much more than the first half did. Now in Okinawa, the film grips a much darker tone with the inclusion of battle scenes, some very gruesome with the loss of limbs and life. Technically speaking, the cinematography and camera work are shaky and move very quickly, causing an effective shift from the sun and peace of the United States to the dark and fog of unfamiliar territory.  A sweet scene between Desmond and brooding former rival, Smitty Ryker, inside a foxhole, is wonderful as we get to know each character much better within that one scene. Both men discuss their pasts and grow a new affection for one another. It is humanistic and character driven and thereby makes the film much more powerful.

Andrew Garfield is a marvel in the film and deserves the attention received for the role. Coming into his own as an actor after suffering hiccups with Spider Man, he has thankfully returned to character driven and empathetic roles. The role of Desmond is a truly heroic role for him and he is wonderfully cast.

A war film with a distinct anti-war message, Hacksaw Ridge  is overall a “guy’s film” with the female characters taking a backseat to the men, and suffers from some tried and true aspects, and some of the hairstyles seem awfully 2016, but in the end the film depicts a wonderful human being and tells his heroic story, so that makes the film a good watch.

Unbroken-2014

Unbroken-2014

Director-Angelina Jolie

Starring-Garrett Hedlund, Domhnall Gleeson

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Reviewed August 1, 2015

Grade: B

Unbroken tells the true story of Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini, a runner during the World War II period, who was also serving in the military during this tumultuous time in history. His story is one of bravery, courage, and endurance, as he survives a hellish experience in Japanese prisoner of war camps after having crashed in the Pacific Ocean, stranded for 47 days, as if that were not enough to break a man.

Mainstream Hollywood fare to the hilt, this film is surprisingly directed by Angelina Jolie (a woman) and written by the Coen brothers, the latter usually emitting less traditional and more quirky fare than this film. Jolie directs what is arguably a “guys movie” that contains very few women in the cast, and the ones who do appear are either a loving mother or giggling schoolgirl types, so the big names associated with Unbroken surprise me. I would have taken this work as a Clint Eastwood film. Unbroken, which was expected to receive several Oscar nominations, was shut out of the major categories.

Visually, Unbroken is slick, glossy, and shot very well- it looks perfect. The cinematography, sound effects, and costumes look great. The cast of good-looking young men look handsome even while battered and bruised and half starved. While in a way this is a compliment, it is also not one. Unbroken lacks any grittiness and plays it quite safe. Even the scenes of abuse and beatings lack an edge to them.

This is not to say that the film is not good. It is good. I found myself inspired by the lead character of Louis, played by Jack O’Connell, for his resilence during his ordeals. O’Connell gives a very good performance as his motto, “If I can take it, I can make it” is repeated throughout and who will not cheer at his accomplishments? Zamperini, who has traditional Italian parents having relocated to the United States, are strict but fair. Louis’s older brother, Peter, is his best friend and is the person who has the most faith in him. At first Louis is on the verge of becoming a punk, in trouble with the law, if not for the interference of his brother, who gets him interested in the sport of running.

As the years go by and war erupts, Louis embarks on a tour of duty in the military and his plane crashes in the water providing yet another test of courage and stamina. Louis is strong and in many ways always the leader of the group he is intertwined with. The scenes of the three survivors stranded on the raft for days become slightly tedious, but perhaps this is the films intention, as they eat raw fish and raw bird to survive. Much of the remaining action is set in two Japanese war camps as Louis (and others) struggle to survive until the massive war has ended- they do not know if they will live or die.

The central antagonist- a vicious Japanese sergeant named “Bird”, perplexed me. Blatantly targeting Louis and administering cruel beatings and heaping tests of strength upon Louis, presumably out of jealousy because Louis was an Olympic athlete, why did Bird not simply kill him? His motivations were also odd- In one scene, Bird tearfully tells Louis that he knew they would be friends from the beginning and seems to admire him. Bird’s father, going by a photo, seems a hard, mean man. Is this why Bird is so vicious? Bird’s character is not well thought out. Also, every single Japanese character is portrayed in a very negative light, which sadly is common in war movies. Surely, despite being a war, there had to have been a few Japanese people who were not cruel. Character development and depth is not a strong suit of this film.

At the end of the day, Unbroken is a good, solid, war drama with an inspiring message of triumph, faith, and determination. Indeed, a positive message to viewers of all ages. The abuse/torture scenes are tough to watch, but the end result is a feel-good story. The snippets of the real Louis Zamperini at the end of the film are wonderful to watch.

American Sniper-2014

American Sniper-2014

Director-Clint Eastwood

Starring-Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller

American_Sniper_poster

Reviewed February 22, 2015

Grade: A-

American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood, is a war film that is told from the viewpoint of the soldier- or in this case a sniper. A character study if you will. Starring Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, deemed the deadliest marksman in U.S. military history, he has 255 kills to his name. The film begins pre-9/11 as Kyle views coverage from the 1998 U.S. Embassy attacks and enlists in a grueling training program to become a Navy Seal sniper. Flashbacks reveal Kyle as a child being taught to hunt deer and shoot a rifle by his demanding father. He is eventually sent to Iraq following the 9/11 terror attacks and the film continues to showcase Kyle’s military career and multiple tours of duty ending years later . His loyal wife Taya is played by Sienna Miller.

I am personally not sure the bevy of controversy that American Sniper has stirred is entirely warranted- I looked at the film simply as a very good mainstream, action movie. Yes, it does have the overdone Americana machismo and Texas swagger, but it is an Eastwood film! This masculinity is at the heart of many of his films. I do not view the film as politically charged.

The film leans neither Republican nor Democratic and seems to take a middle of the road viewpoint. It is a tale of a war hero, but it questions the wars fought and the casualties involved both American and otherwise. Sure, Kyle is a good ole, red blooded American, but as he and Taya watch the 9/11 attacks on television, they are watching CNN not Fox News. His close military buddy asks “why are we here?” referring to Afghanistan- there is a clear inference by Eastwood to question what this is all about. I hope audiences keep this in mind.

One concern I do face as I ponder the film is whether American Sniper will send some audience members back to a time when the world was fearful of Muslims and at risk by the recent ISIS terror situations, I hope that people are smart enough to realize that NOT all Muslims are terrorists- it is only a minuscule portion that are evil inspired. Certainly, the major terrorist in American Sniper, known simply as The Butcher, is despicable, but plenty of other Muslims are innocent and victims of The Butchers brutality.

I love how the film has a depth to it- Cooper is resilient as the troubled sniper. He is portrayed as human- a nice, all-American guy. He wrestles with the choice of shooting a woman and young boy dead at the risk of them carrying a bomb and killing members of his squad- he does not want to kill them, but rather is excellent at his job. He is a perfect shot. In the heat of the moment, under extreme pressure he must ask himself, “should I pull the trigger and end their lives”? “what if they are innocent pedestrians?”. He becomes, in a sense, addicted to his duty of going overseas to Iraq and Afghanistan and justifies his service as “protecting Americans”. This leads to his personal life being affected as Taya becomes frustrated with his frequent tours of duty, which he readily chooses to do. He clearly suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress disorder, but refuses to acknowledge this fact. He almost kills the family dog in a fit of uncontrolled rage; he temporarily confuses sounds from an auto shop as military warfare.

My admiration for the acting ability of Bradley Cooper increases with each role I see him in- he is a marvel. From recent dynamic performances in American Hustle and The Place Beyond the Pines, to this role, I am convinced he can play any part successfully and convincingly. He has sure come a long way from The Hangover films.

American Sniper is an enormous creative and commercial success and deserves to be. Layered, character driven, it is worlds above the typical male driven action film.

Stalag 17-1953

Stalag 17-1953

Director-Billy Wilder

Starring-William Holden, Don Taylor

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Reviewed June 14, 2014

Grade: B

“Stalag 17”, a film by famed director Billy Wilder, tackles the theme of POW’s during World War II. This film reminds me a bit of the acclaimed television show M*A*S*H in that the comedy elements are similar (men in drag, a light subplot of one soldiers obsession with Betty Grable). However, this film is heavy on the drama side too and deep cynicism that network television shows cannot match.

A group of American soldiers are held in a POW camp by Germans. Somehow any plan for escape is realized by the Germans. A whodunit ensues to find out who exactly the mole is and what his motivations are. Liberties are taken- I doubt the real German soldiers would be as nice as they are depicted in the film.

William Holden stars as the cynic of the camp and the likely suspect, but is he the culprit? This film is a hybrid of other Wilder films- the cross dressing theme in “Some Like it Hot” is depicted and shades of the darkness of “Sunset Boulevard” (also starring Holden) appear.

The black and white is effective in eliciting the confinement of the camp. Good film though a predictable “seen this all before” element nagged throughout.