In Theaters

The horror of war is difficult to fathom by anyone who hasn’t lived through it, though movies have made earnest attempts to capture it, documenting what is, arguably, mankind at its worst. But imagine what it might be like if a film set during wartime were to take on the challenge of depicting humanity at its best under those same conditions. If you can envision that, then you have an idea of what transpires in director Christopher Nolan’s new World War II epic, “Dunkirk” (web site, trailers).

In an attempt to stave off an aggressive German military advancing across Europe in 1940, British, French, Belgian and Canadian troops launched an assault on northern France involving 400,000 soldiers. Unfortunately, the effort proved to be a massive miscalculation, a strategic error that became all too apparent when Allied forces suddenly found themselves surrounded by the enemy. An evacuation was called for to bring the troops home to Britain, with the soldiers ordered to assemble on the beaches and in the harbor of the French port of Dunkirk (Dunkerque) on the English Channel. Before long, however, the Allies became trapped, penned in by enemy ground forces and battered by ongoing attacks from the Luftwaffe, the formidable German air force. With nowhere to go, the soldiers became sitting ducks, and the Allied evacuation ships were easy targets for the persistent German assault.

The situation quickly appeared hopeless. But, miraculously, the tide turned when help arrived from an unexpected source: With word of the impending disaster spreading throughout Britain, everyday citizens came to the rescue. The owners of boats of all kinds – from yachts to fishing vessels to lifeboats – formed an impromptu armada, ferrying across the Channel to bring the boys home by any means possible.

“Dunkirk” tells the story of this seemingly improbable evacuation from three perspectives – the experiences of the soldiers on the beach, the heroic boat owners coming to their rescue and the courageous Royal Air Force pilots caught up in dramatic dog fights with their German counterparts seeking to destroy vessels making their escape. Through these various story threads, audiences witness the nearly constant peril in which the Allies found themselves. At the same time, the film also depicts the many hard choices the troops and citizen rescuers often had to make to save their colleagues and, in some cases, just to survive. But, despite these ever-present dangers, there was also the valiant campaign of the citizen heroes to defy the odds and see their goal realized.

In telling its story in this way, “Dunkirk” thus shows humanity at its worst and its best, a rather tricky tightrope to traverse in a single film, but one that’s executed expertly here. The picture carries this off through a superb, ever-suspenseful narrative that’s masterfully backed up by excellent cinematography, editing, special effects and sound technology, as well as an edgy, skillfully applied original score. These elements are effectively combined to tell an epic cinematic thrill ride that truly knocks it out of the park.

Admittedly, I was a little reluctant to screen this picture. I’m generally not a huge fan of the war movie genre; older offerings (particularly classic World War II films) tended to glorify the subject, while more recent releases (such as those chronicling the Vietnam Era) have graphically and gratuitously addressed the issue with their far from subtle “war is hell” messages. “Dunkirk,” however, successfully manages to avoid those pitfalls. It’s relentlessly intense, to be sure, but it never becomes wanton. Director Nolan wisely leaves many of the narrative element “gaps” to be filled in by the minds of his viewers, a skillful use of one of the hallmark techniques of filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, who innately knew that his audience members’ imaginations could concoct images far more affecting than anything he could possibly depict on screen. That’s smart filmmaking from a director who seems to have finally pulled together all of the elements that go into the making of a great picture.

Those looking for movies with meaning might not think this a likely candidate for such a designation. But, unless you’re an exceptionally sensitive viewer, don’t let the subject matter of this film unduly scare you off. There’s much to be said here about what it means to rise to our own greatness as a species, especially in the face of inexorably harrowing circumstances. It’s also comforting to see that, no matter how atrocious our behavior can be, we always have the capacity to make up for it through our power of choice and our wherewithal to opt for acts of heroism, altruism and compassion when confronted with the onslaught of tyranny. And that’s perhaps the aspect of the miracle at Dunkirk that’s truly most worth celebrating.

A complete review will be available in the near future by clicking here.

Creating the Model Propagandist

In a totalitarian state like North Korea, virtually every aspect of life of virtually every citizen is rigidly controlled. Given the pariah nation’s social, political and economic status, many of its residents often go wanting, be it for material goods, opportunities or any of the other things that make life worth living. In fact, about the only ones who are able to rise above bare minimum standards are those who are willing to become advocates (i.e., propagandists) for the state, extolling its alleged virtues, regardless of how empty or vacuous its claims may be. Nevertheless, there are those who are willing to take that step, especially among the nation’s youth seeking to become members of the Korean Children’s Union, the subject of the compelling documentary “Under the Sun” (web site, trailer), available on DVD and video on demand.

The film follows the life of eight-year-old schoolgirl Lee Zin-Mi in her efforts to be selected as a member of the Korean Children’s Union. The documentary chronicles her regimented indoctrination into this coveted institution, including her school life, her involvement in numerous official ceremonies and her training aimed at developing her talents. The hope, from the state’s perspective, is that youngsters like Zin-Mi will become model, ever-smiling representatives of this glorious regime and its infinitely wise supreme leaders.

The experiences of eight-year-old schoolgirl Lee Zin-Mi in becoming a member of the Korean Children’s Union provides the focus of director Vitaly Mansky’s riveting and heartfelt documentary “Under the Sun,” available on DVD and video on demand. Photo courtesy of Icarus Films.

When the production was launched, with the blessings of the North Korean government, the intention was to create a modern-day propaganda film. With a script created by the North Koreans, the intent was to make a movie very much in the same mode as those created during the Nazi and Stalinist Eras. Russian director Vitaly Mansky came on board to film the production under the tight supervision of state officials, who insisted on viewing the dailies after the completion of shooting each day. Mansky agreed to these terms, and the North Koreans assumed that he would abide by them. Little did they know, however, that the director had other plans.

Without the knowledge of state officials, Mansky kept filming between takes, capturing images from the life of the real Zin-Mi, not just the one who was recruited to carry out the state’s wishes in front of the camera. With this clandestinely recorded footage, Mansky assembled a film that combined what the state wanted the world to see along with the demands that the North Korean regime places on the lives of its citizenry, particularly that of an eight-year-old schoolgirl. Through this film, viewers thus get to witness what it means to live under the thumb of a totalitarian government, one that perpetually brainwashes and bullies its citizens into compliance, a campaign that takes quite a personal toll on those subjected to it.

Mansky took quite a chance in making the film he wanted to make. As the DVD’s Bonus Features show, at the end of filming each day, before presenting the dailies to state officials, he would have to quickly and covertly copy what he shot and then erase the unofficial footage from the masters he presented to the North Koreans. The secret footage then had to be smuggled out of the country to prevent its seizure by government officials.

When the finished product was released in 2015, primarily at film festivals, the North Koreans were incensed, demanding that the picture be pulled from circulation. When that demand failed, they then tried to lure Mansky back to North Korea to negotiate a “settlement” about the film’s availability, an invitation that the director graciously declined.

With her parents behind her, eight-year-old schoolgirl Lee Zin-Mi (foreground) endeavors to become a member of the coveted Korean Children’s Union in director Vitaly Mansky’s courageous documentary “Under the Sun,” available on DVD and video on demand. Photo courtesy of Icarus Films.

Despite the complaints of the North Koreans, the film went on to considerable acclaim at film festivals, earning numerous awards and nominations. In addition, the picture also captured a prestigious Independent Spirit Award nomination for best documentary.

“Under the Sun” is a riveting, and at times heartbreaking, piece of cinema. Our hearts go out to the North Korean people in general, and to youngsters like Zin-Mi in particular, for what they must endure under the pressure of their oppressive government. It’s also a cautionary tale for anyone who gives away his or her power to a state that will readily run over its citizenry to achieve the ends of its own agenda. It’s also somewhat ironic that such a warning comes from a Russian filmmaker, but then who better to deliver a message like this than someone who lived through circumstances like these himself.

Consider ourselves warned.

On the Radio This Week 

Join host Frankie Picasso and me this Thursday, July 27, at 1 pm ET for the next Movies with Meaning segment on Frankiesense & More radio. We’ll talk about several current film releases and other movie news. Tune in live or listen to the on-demand podcast for some lively movie talk!

FrankieSense & More Radio on The Good Radio Network

The Best of Movies with Meaning – “Snowden”

Heroes come in many forms. Some are obvious by their acts and deeds. Others are less apparent, working quietly behind the scenes to effect meaningful change. And others still may take drastic measures that leave them unappreciated for their efforts, perhaps even being vilified as criminals, agitators or traitors by members of officialdom. Those who fall into this last category often don’t receive the recognition they deserve until well after the fact (consider the case of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for example). But, in today’s rapidly evolving media age, it’s now possible to get the word out about someone’s heroic efforts quickly and widely, an achievement made possible through the release of the revealing biopic, “Snowden” (web site, trailer), currently airing on cable television and available on DVD, Blu-ray disc and video on demand.

In 2013, former CIA and NSA intelligence contractor Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) stunned the world with his revelation of covert government operations aimed at collecting massive amounts of phone and Internet data from American citizens. This unprecedented aggregation of information was said to be essential for the US government’s intelligence operations in combating the war on terror. But was such an invasion of personal privacy truly necessary – or legal?

Fleeing from the US to Hong Kong, Snowden met secretly with filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and reporters Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) to divulge what he knew. This collaboration led to a series of explosive newspaper articles and the documentary “Citizen Four” (2014), all of which set off a media firestorm that made headlines around the globe.

Whistleblower Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, second from left) consults with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo, left) and reporters Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson, second from right) and Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto, right) in revealing explosive government secrets in director Oliver Stone’s biopic, “Snowden.” Photo by Jürgen Olczyk, courtesy of Open Road Films.

For his efforts,  Snowden was labeled a hero by some and a traitor by others. So why did he do it? That’s what this film is all about. Through a series of flashbacks beginning in 2004, viewers learn Snowden’s personal and professional history, first as an aspiring special forces soldier sidelined by injuries and later as a budding CIA operative under the mentoring of agency instructors Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) and Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage). Snowden’s interest in such undertakings stemmed from the outrage he felt after the 9/11 attacks. As an avowed patriot, not to mention a computer genius, he wanted to give something back. And, even though he didn’t quite fit the profile of a typical intelligence operative recruit, the powers that be recognized his talents, bringing him aboard without hesitation.

Upon the completion of his training, Snowden was placed to postings in Geneva and Japan with the CIA and NSA. However, the more he became involved in these operations, the more disenchanted he became. When he saw the true nature of some of the US government’s initiatives, he grew increasingly uneasy about his participation in them, especially when he learned that the agencies’ spying efforts entailed surveillance of not only foreign elements, but also a massive number of domestic parties.

The stress of this internal conflict took its toll on the idealistic young operative. Snowden began to question his beliefs, growing increasingly skeptical about the government and his personal convictions in supporting it. These circumstances also strained his relationship with his girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), and affected his health. Clearly, something would have to give. And so, while posted to a new venture in Hawaii, he decided to take action, a bold move with the potential to blow the lid off everything – and that could potentially cost him everything.

Taking such a stand requires remarkable courage and personal fortitude. Yet those are qualities Snowden demonstrated repeatedly throughout his career, and, when faced with conditions he could no longer sanction, he felt compelled to make them known to the world. He alerted the public to secrets that otherwise likely never would have seen the light of day. What’s more, he has inspired other whistleblowers to come forward to make injustices known. Indeed, if anyone wonders what it means to be a hero, particularly in the face of overwhelmingly oppressive scrutiny, Snowden wears the mantle well.

Whistleblower Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, left) struggles to maintain his relationship with his longtime girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley, right), under trying circumstances in director Oliver Stone’s biopic, “Snowden.” Photo by William Gray, courtesy of Open Road Films.

Though sometimes flat in its tone and drawn out in its pacing, “Snowden” is nevertheless an important piece of cinema that does an excellent job of detailing what happened and explaining the implications of the protagonist’s actions. Gordon-Levitt turns in an excellent performance in capturing Snowden’s soft-spoken but intense demeanor and distinctive vocal inflections, and he’s backed by an excellent supporting cast across the board. This may not be director Oliver Stone’s best cinematic effort, but it’s arguably one of his most significant productions. What’s more, this biopic, though a somewhat fictionalized account, ranks far superior to its documentary predecessor, which, commendably, captured history as it happened but became so bogged down in computer jargon that its impact was lost on virtually anyone not fluent in tech-speak.

Stepping up to the plate under trying conditions truly requires heroic efforts. And, for his part, Snowden shows us how.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Copyright © 2017, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.