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“It” Review: “And We’ll All Float On”

It - PosterI do not think it was possible to be a child of the 70s or 80s and make it to adulthood without experiencing, at one point or another, a Stephen King work. Whether on the printed page, the TV screen or the movie theater, the creations of the “Master of Horror” were almost a rite of passage in those days. As of this, there’s been 43 movie adaptations and 30 TV series and mini-series adapted from his 56 novels and over 200 short stories — and I’m not even counting the numerous sequels of various quality levels that don’t use any work of his.  Regardless of whether they featured some supernatural entity or not, King always found a way to feature a memorable villain in his tales. Think of Randall Flagg stalking America in The Stand, Jack Torrance wandering the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, Annie Wilkes standing over the bed in Misery or Kurt Barlow rising from his coffin in ‘Salem’s Lot. The man knows how to make a good villain. And right smack in the middle of it is Pennywise the Dancing Clown.

Now, if you were to look for coulrophobia (the term that is translated as “fear of clowns”) you won’t find it in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (It instead falls under the “Specific Phobia” category for fear induced by specific triggers which covers everything there isn’t a diagnosis for). What is interesting is that it almost appears as if this modern terror came to be popularized as a result of the novel It. Perhaps it was the right work at the right time. Poltergeist had that creepy clown doll that came alive. DC Comics was reconceptualizing The Joker at the same time towards a more menacing clown than he’d been in decades. New interest on the life and crimes of serial killer John Wayne Gacy led to a rediscovery of sorts of his Pogo the Clown persona. Pennywise fit right into it all — culminating in the epic interpretation by Tim Curry in the 1990 ABC mini-series. But the terror of It lied as much with the people of Derry as it did with the eponymous monster.

It focuses on seven eleven-year-old misfit kids who live in the small town of Derry, ME in 1988-89 and call themselves the Losers’ Club.  They include Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), Mike (Chosen Jacobs) and Beverly (Sophia Lillis). Each one is an outcast for one reason or another: Bill stutters, Ben is overweight and new to town, Richie wears glasses and is skinny, Eddie has a number of ailments, Stanley is Jewish, Mike is African-American in a white town and Beverly is a girl accused of promiscuity. One rainy day, Bill’s brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) takes a paper boat his brother made for him out and runs into Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard), a monster that feeds on the fear and flesh of the people of Derry.  But that is not the only monster the Losers must contend over the next year.  They have to face Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his gang of bullies. They have to deal with parents of all types. And perhaps worst of all, they have to do all of this alone.It - Georgie

One of the greatest aspects of King’s novel was the way in which it managed to isolate his protagonists from the world around them. By making the Losers’ Club his heroes, King found a way to explain why people would not necessarily believe them — adults would dismiss them as children at play while their peers would see them as the Losers being the Losers. The movie follows much of this idea and makes the fate of Derry and their own lives their own affair. Part of it is Pennywise’s power but part of it is that the small town of Derry makes its bed in ignoring the number of tragedies that seem to befall them every generation.

What the movie also gets right is the sense of children right as they are about to leave childhood. It helps that they have a solid cast leading things. Leiberher (of Midnight Special) and Wolfhard (of Stranger Things) are the most recognizable faces but all of the young cast acquit themselves well here. Lieberher’s Bill carries the burden of his brother’s death on his shoulders. Meanwhile Wolfhard is the comedian of the group and gets some of the best lines in the movie — at usually the worst moments. I’ll also highlight Lillis’ performance as Beverly because she has to do double-duty, portraying the more adult member of the Losers’ Club — bringing the rest of them along towards adolescence — as well as the girl who lives with a different kind of monster.

Speaking of monsters, Skarsgard’s Pennywise is not the same as Curry’s. That isn’t a surprise. Freed from the censors of prime-time network TV, Skarsgard is allowed to make Pennywise less of a silly, fun clown and more of the monster that King envisioned. He takes on many different forms — a leper for Eddie, a misshapen painting image for Stan, a bloody geyser for Beverly. (Aside: gee, I wonder what King was hinting at with these monster images for our characters).  But for Pennywise, there is less immediate charm but that’s not a bad thing. You’re always aware of the threat, the danger, that the grinning clown signifies for our young heroes. He’s like a charming shark or a soft-spoken snake; grinning before eating. He gets some great jump scares in here also.

It - Bev's FearI will give credit for the young cast’s performances to director Andy Muschietti who showed similar deftness with young actors in his feature debut, Mama. Working off the screenplay by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman, Muschietti does a solid job of combining the two elements juxtaposing against one another in this story: the Losers’ Club fight against It and their own individual and collective growth and development from children into adulthood.  And while at the heart, there’s the conflict with Pennywise, it is all the other issues the Losers are dealing which ground the story.

Muschietti manages to find the quiet streets and alleyways of small-town Derry and it is in these hidden corners that the story of the Losers and Pennywise plays out. Rather than making them dark or mysterious, it’s interesting how sunny and bright it all is. Pennywise isn’t a creature of the dark. He appears in the middle of the day and has no compunction in striking when his targets are alone; regardless of time or location. That also plays with that other half of the tale: Beverly’s home is dark and dingy, a reflection of her father’s nasty nature towards her while the office of Stanley’s dad manages to contain more shadows than a rabbi’s office normally should.

In that way, Muschietti and his team follow the more important aspect of King’s work: the monsters that are not supernatural which plague the Losers. Embodied in Henry Bowers, in Gretta (Megan Charpentier) and her friends, in Mr. Marsh (Stephen Bogaert) and Ms. Kasprak (Molly Atkinson), the Losers are forced to confront more than one danger in their year. And while there’s something terrifying in the manner of It, at least there’s comfort in knowing it is an other-worldly threat. How does Beverly deal with her abusive and lecherous father? How do Mike and Ben face off against Henry and his goons? Or Eddie manage his over-protective hypochondriac mother? Facing off against Pennywise is almost an easier quest for them. In doing both, the Losers are meant to shed their innocence and come to grips with the dangers and realities of adulthood.

I’ll have to potentially spoil somethings now before it is all over. So if spoilers bug you, just skip to the last paragraph. So…SPOILERS START

It_09162016_Day 57_16310.dngIn splitting the large tome that is It into two chapters and focusing each one of the movies on a specific time period, I do wonder if some of the larger themes are lost in translation. The novel focuses not only on how fighting Pennywise brings the Losers’ Club together but also in how it impacts them as adults. Things do not necessarily turn out great for them as adults as they carry the scars from their fight for the rest of their lives. And dealing with that post-traumatic stress does factor in the choices they make as adults. While I do not doubt that they will be a factor in the soon-to-come Chapter 2, it was in that juxtaposition of children growing up facing a monster versus adults grown and dealing with the fallout and the monster again that the brilliance of the novel laid.  The decision to split the book in two makes sense financially and creatively. But how they stick the landing will be interesting to see. SPOILERS END

Ultimately It is a solid adaptation of one of Stephen King’s best works. The novel and the movie are anchored by the burgeoning friendship amidst the Losers’ Club. The movie does great work in making us care for these children as they face off against something supernatural. In that metaphor for growing up lies a great deal of fear and terror. You cannot count on the adults because they ignore It or cannot see It. You might not even be able to count on others of your peers because they’re too busy desperately trying to be something else. But if you have friends, you can face off against a trans-dimensional monster that feeds on children’s fears.

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Game of Thrones: The Monster at the End & “The Dragon & The Wolf”

GOT - Dany & DrogonSorry for the delay, but I wanted to let this last episode before 2019 marinate in the head. In any case, here we go:

Ever since the first moments in Game of Thrones, we have known who the greatest threat to the Seven Kingdoms were. Three brothers of the Night’s Watch came upon them, killed two while and ran for his life. When captured, that man managed to tell the Warden of the North the truth of what was coming. For his troubles, he was beheaded as a deserter and dismissed as a madman.  But he knew the truth that was coming.

In many ways, this episode brought home a lot of those truths to the various characters in the Seven Kingdoms. And some would not survive them.

For the Dragon Queen and the King in the North, their entire quest to bring back a wight to King’s Landing meant confronting the Queen in the Iron Throne. This also meant a confrontation between the various characters aligned with one or the other — Bronn met up with Tyrion and Podrick, Theon came face to face again with his uncle Euron, Sandor Clegane confronted his brother, Gregor. But they all paled in comparison to the meeting between Cersei and Daenerys, the rivals for the Seven Kingdoms.  The older queen and the younger queen sized each other up at long last before Sandor Clegane dropped a ton of truth on the Lannisters in the force of the wight.

The shrieking spirit took its newfound freedom to try and attack Cersei and, in that moment, the pretense of many appeared to fall away. Euron Greyjoy appeared to turn and run — abandoning Cersei’s cause. Qyburn — a man devoted to bringing things back from the dead — was mesmerized. Jaime Lannister stared in horror at the truth that his brother and his allies had been talking about. But Cersei, despite her shock, never stopped calculating. She used the chance for a truce with Daenerys to demand that Jon Snow keep his troops in the North and never take arms against the Lannisters. Here the vow Jon made to Dany’s cause came back to bite them as he could not make such a promise to Cersei.

Though at first, it looked like a crazy demand from someone who manipulates people, it was but one in a series of moves by Cersei to try and position her claim and status ahead of her rivals should the war against the White Walkers be won. Forced to confront both of her brothers, Cersei appeared to give not just her agreement to a truce, but to uniting her forces with those of Dany and Jon in a front that would face the Army of the Dead. But it was all a lie. While Jon, Dany, Tyrion and their forces were making plans on moving towards Winterfell, Jaime was forced to come to terms with Cersei’s lies. Euron had not abandoned their cause. He had gone to fetch the Golden Company to assist in their cause. And she would not send the Lannister forces north despite having promised so.

GOT - Jaime & Cersei

This latest set of lies brings Jaime Lannister face to face with the monster that his sister has become. It’s not just that she’s betraying the cause she swore to uphold. It’s not just that she’s attempting to keep her hold on the Iron Throne. It’s that, despite the horror she just got a glimpse of, Cersei is willing to play the old game of thrones against the fate of humanity — including their unborn child. Jaime, at long last, realizes that there is no depth, no horror, nothing more sacred to his sister than her quest for power. Just as the Mad King would have burned King’s Landing to deny his foes victory, so would his lover betray all those fighting against a horde of death if she could be the last ruler in the Seven Kingdoms. Feeling betrayed, Jaime abandons Cersei and heads off by himself northwards — the flakes of snow falling over him a cold warning of the incoming winter and its doom.

Someone who feels as if he’s betrayed all he stood for is Theon Greyjoy. He betrayed the Starks when he returned to take over Winterfell under his father’s banner. He betrayed his Greyjoy nature by being with the Starks.  He then betrayed Yara by abandoning her to their mad uncle — a monster in his own right.  But with the end of the world possibly coming, Theon decides to confront his monsters head on.  First, he asks for forgiveness from Jon Snow, the man who leads House Stark now.  Then he heads to the shore to rally Yara’s sailors to follow him in a rescue mission. They’re not as enthused and it takes a tough fight for Theon to win their respect enough that they will follow him. This will bring him face to face with the monster that is his uncle but also the monster that he’s still dealing with — the abuse he faced at the hands of Ramsay Bolton.

Further northward, the Stark sisters appeared set for a showdown — one helped along its way by Littlefinger. He appears to be helping Sansa reach the conclusion that Arya is after her title as Lady of Winterfell because she does not trust her to try and maneuver herself into power above Jon. It seems as if Sansa is set to confront Arya in the Great Hall of Winterfell, surrounded by soldiers and lords, when the rug is pulled from underneath Petyr Baelish and he’s the one charged with treason and murder by Sansa. In that moment, the scheming, backstabbing and treason of Littlefinger came to the light. One of the biggest monsters in the story was confronted by the people he had victimized for so long.

It was Littlefinger who had set the Starks and the Lannisters against one another. It was Littlefinger who had made Lysa Arryn poison her husband, Lord Jon Arryn, and then later murdered her to take power in the Vale. It was Littlefinger who told Ned and Catelyn that the knife used to attempt to take Bran’s life was Tyrion’s — sparking Catelyn’s arrest of the Imp and beginning the war.  It was Littlefinger who betrayed Ned Stark to the Lannisters, turned Sansa over to the Boltons, worked with the Tyrells to murder Joffrey and so many more moves big and small. In many ways, the War of the Five Kings was all his doing — he set the pieces in motion and ensured that Westeros fell into carnage and chaos. And it was all done to grow his own power. Petyr Baelish has been one of the biggest monsters in this story since its start.

GOT - BaelishSo it was no small amount of pleasure to see him brought to his knees, begging and pleading for his life, before the children of those he betrayed. His scheming and maneuvering smoked out by the one he claimed to love. Sansa had played the player; outschemed the schemer. When he said to turn to Brienne of Tarth, she sent him away. When he told her to think of what Arya would do, she instead thought of what Baelish would think Arya would do. Sansa knows her sister. Rough, wild, dangerous though she may be, she’s been adamant since her childhood days that she did not want to be a lady, least of all Lady of Winterfell.

So at long last, Petyr Baelish was made to pay for his crimes. Lord Royce of the Vale refused to aid him and, found guilty by the girl he trained, he lost his life via the dagger he used to start the War of the Five Kings. The dagger wielded by the daughter of the man he betrayed and turned over by the boy it had been sent to kill. In a story of big monsters, he fell on the cold floor of the Great Hall and no one shed a tear for him. Not the knights of the Vale. Not the bannermen of the wolves. And certainly not the children of Eddard and Catelyn Stark.

But the biggest revelation was the one that came from Bran and Sam Tarly. That the bastard son of Eddard Stark is neither a bastard nor his son. Thanks to Bran’s visions, we know that Jon is the son of Lyanna Stark, Ned’s sister, and Prince Rhaegar Targaryen. Thanks to the private diaries of a High Septon which Gilly uncovered as Sam transcribed for the Maesters, we come to know that Lyanna and Rhaegar were wed in a secret ceremony — making Jon the trueborn son of the Crown Prince and the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. (His claim superseding that of his aunt, Daenerys Targaryen). And that his real name was never Jon Snow. He’s Aegon Targaryen.

If only Jon and Dany knew of that prior to finally succumbing to their growing feelings for one another, it might have prevented greater possible dangers down the road. For as Bran was uncovering the full truth of the secret that led to Robert’s Rebellion, the fall of the Targaryens, the Sack of King’s Landing and everything else that has happened since, Jon and Dany were falling into bed with one another. It makes sense: they’re singular figures, alone with the weight of the world on their shoulders and finding in each other a kindred spirit. But how will the truth of Jon’s, excuse me, Aegon’s parentage impact that? How will it impact the tenuous alliance they’ve built and the people around who depend on them to lead?

Or will they even have a chance? For as they were heading northwards, the Army of the Dead finally reached The Wall — that ancient work designed to keep them out of the Seven Kingdoms. And here’s where the folly of Jon’s mission to bring a wight to King’s Landing is fully revealed. For as Tormund and Ser Beric Dondarrion stare in horror, the Night King swoops from on high on the back of the resurrected Viserion. The undead dragon, breathing blue flame, brings down The Wall around Eastwatch by the Sea and creates the opening for the undead horde to march into the Seven Kingdoms.

GOT - Army of the DeadAnd this is where the story leaves us: with only the certainty of a final showdown between the Army of the Dead and the armies of the living in Westeros. One monster is dead, one remains in power but growing isolated from anyone who cares for her and one leads its army into battle. The story of Game of Thrones has always revolved around how people respond to great crises and threats both big and small. But it was always leading to these clashes. In classic fantasy, the hero rises triumphantly, slays the final monster at the end and rules happily and in peace. The world of Ice and Fire is not like that though. Heroes may rise and they may slay the monster — but the price to do so will be terrible. And there is no guarantee that whoever does it will live happily or in peace.

If you think this story has a happy ending….

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Game of Thrones: Band of Brothers & “Beyond The Wall”

GOT - RangingIt has been a strange and sometimes difficult journey for the various characters in our story. That’s a bit of a cliché but it’s not untrue at this point. For anyone who has survived it to this point, that has happened either one of two ways: thanks to their wits or thanks to their friends. And for most, it’s been thanks to the second as even the smartest players have found themselves at the mercy of luck or of forces greater than they could oppose. It’s the ability to find common ground with people who may have opposed you, who may still be set against your goals, that has given each and every one of the survivors of the game of thrones the opportunity to still be breathing and trying to challenge for their goals.

For the various members of the group ranging beyond the gates of Eastwatch by the Sea, they were all brought together by different means — and some have been enemies at one point or another. It was Sandor Clegane who dealt Ser Beric Dondarrion one of the six deaths from which Thoros of Myr has returned him. Now the three march together as members of the Brotherhood Without Banners, sent this way by a vision The Hound had in Thoros’ flames of a mountain shaped like an arrowhead.  The very same Brotherhood also sold Gendry to Melisandre when all he wanted to do was be one of them. Instead, he was used for his king’s blood in the Red Priestess’ rituals and may have been doomed but for the interjection by Ser Davos Seaworth. Now he marches with the same men though he continues to hold a grudge against them. In a similar way, Tormund Giantsbane marches alongside Ser Jorah Mormont, the son of the former Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch who was such a pain on the wildlings’ side.

Jorah is there because of the allegiance and love he has for his queen, Daenerys Targaryen. But the march brings him alongside another man who saw a worthwhile father figure in the Old Bear, Jon Snow. Ever the noble figure, Jon agree to return his Valyrian steel sword, Longclaw, back to Mormont — returning House Mormont’s ancient sword back to its rightful house. But Mormont knows he lost all right to it when he fled and that his father found someone worthy when he gave it to the new King in the North. But that may not be all the erstwhile knight might have lost to the Bastard of Winterfell.GOT - Encircled

Down on Dragonstone, Tyrion sets to the task of trying to convince Daenerys that there may be a different way to rule than through fear or intimidation. This is what he promised Varys he would do. After all, if Dany is to win allies to her cause, then she needs to find ways to bring them to her side that don’t involve the terror of dying by dragonfire. So he tries to talk to her of a vision grander than the immediate concerns; of succession and of a way to ensure the work of Daenerys, the Breaker of Chains, isn’t undone after her passing. Dany, though, is having none of it. There is some mistrust of her Queen’s Hand due to her recent losses and to the heritage that Tyrion inevitably brings due to his family. That said, he does speak to a kernel of truth in regards to the growing sentiment between the Dragon Queen and the King in the North. Perhaps it may turn into an alliance; perhaps into something more. Invariably, it seems the heart and head of Daenerys Stormborn are less with her Hand and more with her rival to the North.

Back in the North, Jon’s sisters are finding their familial bonds are not enough to survive the scheming of Littlefinger. Having found Sansa’s letter to Robb in which she denounced her father as a traitor, it doesn’t take much for the animosity the younger Stark sister had towards the Lannisters to swing to her older sister. All their old rivalries and childish errors take on a darker, more sinister tone. Sansa sees no choice but to turn to Littlefinger and ask for his advice — and he tells her to seek out Brienne of Tarth for protection against her sister.  Sansa listens to it and then opts to send Brienne south to the meeting being set by Cersei and Daenerys. Was it a wise move? A means of finding out what move Littlefinger had and then trying to beat it? Or was it a foolish move? It appears so when Sansa finds the bag with the faces in Arya’s room and comes face to face — pardon the pun — with the assassin trained by a death cult and not her younger sister. The moment makes it clear to Sansa that she may no longer be dealing with little Arya Underfoot but with someone far more dangerous. Her sister may not be seeing her as anything but an enemy any more.

GOT - Sansa & Arya

In terms of danger though, nothing compares to when the party finds and captures a wight. During the battle, Jon uses Longclaw to kill the white walker and the wights that follow it shatter and lose their magic. Does that meant that the massive Army of the Dead has a weakness? That they need not fight all the foot soldiers as long as they can kill the masters? They don’t have time to ponder these thoughts as the rest of the army descends upon them and traps them on a tiny island in the middle of a frozen lake. The ranging and their battles cost them dearly — the bulk of the Brotherhood Without Banners falls, including Thoros of Myr.  His death a stark warning to the others that they don’t have the means to be brought back from the dead as Beric and Jon have in the past.

Forced to fight for their survival and their mission, the remaining warriors try to hold out until Daenerys shows up with her dragons to rescue them — and she does thanks to Gendry’s timely arrival back at Eastwatch. The dragons prove more than a match for the chattel of dead and rotten flesh that is assaulting their mother’s warriors. But even they prove weak to the magic of the White Walkers. With one lance, the Night King brings down Viseryon and kills it. The loss of one of her children momentarily stunning Dany and everyone around her and causing them to flee in panic, leaving Jon behind as he’s dragged into the icy lake. His ultimate survival is a result of the sacrifice of his old uncle, Benjen Stark, who arrives in the nick of time to save him from the wights before he’s torn apart. The man who brought him into the Night’s Watch, whose fate had driven Jon for so long, arrives to save him and they don’t have the time to say but a few words.

Much is made of the bond made by warriors in times of battle. With good reason. To trust in one another when a lack of trust means death brings a heavy burden. Throughout their ordeal, all the warriors’ mistrust fell away because it had to. Thoros gave his life protecting Sandor Clegane from an undead bear on fire. When Jorah Mormont nearly fell off Drogon’s back, it was Tormund who lunged for him and ensured he survived. While Dany’s trust for Tyrion fell, she found a deeper trust for Jon Snow, who finally agreed to bend the knee and swear fealty to her. It is one thing to swear loyalty when things are easy. It’s another to have to live up to it when the enemy is all around you and death is but a moment’s breath away.

GOT - Night KingBut even as Dany’s and Jon’s side gained the proof they so desperately needed to try and convince Cersei Lannister of the truth, so did the Night King gain something powerful in return. Using his army, he drags the remains of Viseryon out of the lake and reanimates the dead dragon into his servant.  How will the Mother of Dragons deal with seeing one of her children riding against her? Destroying her friends and aiding her enemies? In what way will this shift in power make the White Walkers’ quest easier?

As we head into the season’s end, only questions are being found.

 

 

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Game of Thrones: The Illusion of Choice & “Eastwatch”

GOT - Tyrion & DanyThis season, we have seen more callbacks and shouts than ever before. That’s not surprising given that it’s time the pieces were put together. But of all the past pieces coming back, the one most interesting to me was the call to Tywin Lannister’s old statement to his children. “The lion doesn’t concern himself with the opinions of the sheep.” Tywin lived a life free of concern for those he deemed lesser than himself — which covered pretty much everyone in Westeros. He managed this via ruthless maneuvering and positioning his enemies into situations where they felt they had little to no choice in their actions. He would present them with a choice, when in reality, there really was no choice to take but the one he had deemed mandatory. We see much of this happen in this episode.

For starters, we have Daenerys Targaryen giving the remains of the Lannister army the chance to bend the knee and swear fealty to her — or die. In the presence of Drogon, she appears to give them a clear choice and most take it. Most, but not Lord Randyll Tarly of Horn Hill. Though he has just switched allegiances from his liege lords, the Tyrells, to the Lannisters, he finds bending the knee to a girl from far away lands too much. He refuses to bow and follow Dany and, despite the protestations of Tyrion, Dany follows through with her threat. Lord Randyll and his son, Dickon, pay for their refusal with their lives. This appears to cow the rest of the resistant forces into bending the knee. Not much of a choice.

Nor, does it seem, does Queen Cersei see a choice in her alternatives. Despite the pleas for peace from Jaime, she sees only two alternatives: fight and die or surrender and die. Jaime, for his part, was saved from Drogon’s fire by Bronn, who could not believe that he had dared charged at the Dragon Queen. But Jaime saw no choice in the matter, like his sister. It was flee and die later or take his chance to stop her right then and there, even if it meant his death. These choices do not appear appeasing but to Cersei but she accepts that she must fight for her life if she’s to have any chance to keep it. Her life and that of her unborn son growing within her. Given that she just learned that Lady Olenna was the true murderer of Joffrey, she is desperate to find a way to bring this new life she and her brother have created unto the world. So when Tyrion arrives with an offer for an armistice from Dany, she’s willing to take it in order to buy time for her next move. It’s why she lets him enter and leave King’s Landing unharmed.

And why is Tyrion bringing an offer of armistice? To give Jon Snow, the King in the North, a chance to range beyond Eastwatch by the Sea and capture one of the wights that mindlessly follow the Night King’s commands to prove to Queen Cersei that their claims of an Army of the Dead are true. Without that proof, Cersei and Dany won’t ever give each other the chance to unite their armies against the Night King and the White Walkers. Jon, as one of the few men to have ranged into the north beyond The Wall and lived, has the experience and the know-how of how to fight against the White Walkers and their minions. He might be King in the North but he sees no choice in his going — he must lead this expedition no matter the cost.

GOT - PartyHe won’t be going alone though. The newly-returned Jorah Mormont and Gendry Waters arrive in King’s Landing not soon before he’s set to depart and agree to join the King in the North in his daring ranging. Ser Jorah does it for the sake of the Dragon Queen — in whose service he’s always wanted to be — while Gendry — found by Ser Davos back at his forge in King’s Landing — appears eager to join forces with the bastard son of his father’s best friend. Gendry has spent his time training himself in using a warhammer, King Robert Baratheon’s old weapon of choice, and manages to show his skill with it in saving Tyrion from corrupt Gold Cloaks. They will also be joined by Tormund Giantsbane, the Brotherhood Without Banners and Sandor Clegane, the Hound. All of them brought by different reasons. All of them holding grudges of different kinds against others — Gendry against the Brotherhood, Tormund against Jorah — and yet united in a purpose that they seem unable to choose against.

As Jon travels north, Littlefinger is looking to sow distrust in his home. He notices the disagreements between the Stark sisters, Sansa and Arya, and how Sansa is rising in the estimation of the lords encamped at Winterfell. This causes seeds of doubt to grow inside Arya’s mind. She knows the kind of girl her sister was and how she saw herself as better than everyone else. So Littlefinger deceives Arya into finding the old raven message Sansa sent to Robb, telling her their father was a traitor and he needed to go to King’s Landing to bend the knee. Knowing Arya and how fiercely she holds her love for her father and her siblings, Littlefinger is hoping that the young assassin will not be able to see the deception in the letter nor the meaning behind them that Cersei Lannister put into Sansa’s writings. Littlefinger, so far on the outs with most of the new power structure, is looking for a way to fashion a new choice for the lords of the North: one where either Sansa is Queen and he’s behind her or where Arya and Sansa are dead and the North is in chaos.

A similar chaos though may claim The Reach. The former breadbasket of the Seven Kingdoms, stripped by the Lannisters before Daenerys burned much of their gains has seen the end of both their lords and their immediate successors in the Tyrells and the Tarlys. Well, one Tarly does remain: Samwell. He tries to make the archmaesters see the truth in Bran’s message about the White Walkers. He even provides them with an avenue for impacting the course of the war: by confirming the truth of the message to the high lords and ladies of Westeros. Instead of seeing it as a choice between doing something and doing nothing, the archmaesters instead see it as the foolish notions of a boy who has lost much in the War of the Five Kings. And dismiss it.GOT - Sam & Gilly

So Sam makes the choice that seems right to him: he takes the scrolls and books he thinks will best give him a clue as to how to defeat the White Walkers and leaves the Citadel with Gilly and baby Sam in tow. He abandons the order that was set to him by his Lord Commander to become the Night’s Watch next maester and decides to go for parts unknown with his trove of knowledge, the woman he loves and her child and his house’s ancient Valyrian steel sword, Heartsbane. What will happen if he returns to Horn Hill? Archmaester Ebrose chose to not reveal his father’s and brother’s fates to Sam. Will he find his mother and sister, those family members closest to him, in desperate need of him? By the vows he swore to the Old Gods, he’s a Man of the Night’s Watch, sworn to renounce all claims, lands, titles and inheritance.

More importantly though, to consider, is did he bring the book Gilly was reading from Archmaester Maynard which spoke of a secret annulment and new marriage by Prince Rhaegar Targaryen? The implications of a new marriage pact by Rhaegar, should he have married Lyanna Stark, are numerous. Would Sam choose to reveal them? Would he do so to help bring forth a new candidate to the Iron Throne for the good of the Realm or to hurt the woman who just burned his brother and father alive? Every one of these characters thinks they have choices in the way the story goes, but most of the time, they are reacting to what others have done. In that way, like Tywin Lannister used to do, they are presented with only one course of action and no real choice at all.

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Game of Thrones: The Veterans & “The Spoils of War”

GOT - Arya WinterfellIt has been approximately four years since the start of this story. Four years since a raven flew north from King’s Landing, bearing the news of Lord Jon Arryn’s death and the coming of King Robert Baratheon to Winterfell to his Warden of the North, Lord Eddard Stark. In that time, we have seen no less than three major wars start, rage and end: the War of the Five Kings which swallowed up every part of Westeros, the War for The Wall between the Night’s Watch and the King Beyond the Wall’s army and the War for Slaver’s Bay between the forces of Daenerys Stormborn and the Slave Masters. We have seen great houses rise and fall. We have witnessed the deaths of heroes and villains alike. And we have seen monsters of every kind leave scars on the minds and bodies of our protagonists. No one still alive in this tale doesn’t carry some kind of battlescar, physical or mental.

In the four years since she left her home, Arya Stark has been a student of fencing, a hidden traveler, a runaway, a captive, a steward to Lord Tywin Lannister, a prisoner of The Hound, a trainee of the Faceless Men and finally, a deliverer of vengeance. But finally walking back into her ancient home provides her with a moment to take stock of all that she’s experienced in that time. Evading her sister’s guards, she makes for her father’s tomb — which is where Sansa finds her. The two sisters, fiercely unique and at each other’s throats for much of their lives, find common ground in all the tragedy that has befallen them and in the strength with which they’ve kept moving forward. But if Sansa thinks she’s gotten her sister back, she’s slowly coming to a realization that this Arya is more than the tomboyish girl who she last saw at King’s Landing. She’s a fighter, a warrior and someone who speaks of a list of targets.

However, even Arya is a bit taken aback at the quiet fortitude with which their brother, Bran, speaks of things he should not know. Let’s consider that he manages to shock the usually unflappable Petyr Baelish when he gives Bran the dagger that was meant to kill him all those years back. Back then, Littlefinger claimed it was his until he lost it to Tyrion Lannister — a claim that drove Catelyn Stark into taking the Imp prisoner and starting the War of the Five Kings. Now he’s stating he has no idea as to its provenance. Bran doesn’t buy it because he knows the truth — even if he cannot voice it yet. Such is the extent of his powers that, the more he gains access to the Three-Eyed Raven’s visions, the more he stops being Brandon Stark. Meera Reed calls him out on it but her words fail to reach the young man she once protected. The power he gained may be enough to turn the tide against the Army of the Dead — just as Arya’s skills may be enough to stop Cersei Lannister in her tracks — but the cost has taken much of who they were from them for good.

Game of ThronesDown in Dragonstone, meanwhile, Jon Snow is looking to forge an alliance with Daenerys Targaryen. The King in the North and the Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea have also suffered, been brought low and risen stronger to take their positions. In the depths of the dragonglass mine, Jon shows Dany the ancient carvings of the Children of the Forest, depicting their great war against the White Walkers. How the Children united with the First Men to fight off their greatest enemy during the Long Night. Jon takes that moment to explain why he cannot bend the knee to Dany but still seeks an alliance with her. For Jon, his experience being betrayed by the Night’s Watch have taught him that he should not do something that would cause his bannermen to lose faith in him. Bending the knee to Dany might cause them to doubt, right as they need one another more and more. For Dany though, the situation is getting more tense. Upon learning of the loss of the Tyrell army, she is ready to unleash her dragons against King’s Landing herself. Tyrion tries to talk her out of doing so — fearful of the vengeance that the Mad King’s daughter might wreak upon Westeros.

Jon, for his part, is still unsure of what to make of Dany — though Ser Davos seems to think there’s a growing sense of infatuation developing. Perhaps in Dany, Jon finds a kindred spirit: someone who inspires her followers and not someone who buys them or frightens them into fighting for her. He does find it odd that Missandei would not consider leaving Dany’s side or if she even could despite her protestations — she could be as much a prisoner in Dragonstone as he is.  Then, he gets an unwelcomed reunion with the former Prince of Winterfell, Theon Greyjoy. Having been rescued by some of Yara’s Ironborn, Theon is there to petition Dany for help in rescuing his sister. Theon has lost much that made him what he was in the years since he was Ned Stark’s ward. Though his losses are physical, it’s in his psyche where the damage is strongest. Having lost his manhood, his title and even his sense of self, he may fear losing Yara most of all — and in that, losing the last bit of himself.

They are not the only ones who have paid much for what they have gained. Queen Cersei Lannister has lost all three of her children, her father and, some might say, her humanity in order to finally seat the Iron Throne. But she has slaughtered all those in her path and now seeks unchallenged dominion. Thanks to the gold her brother looted from Highgarden, the Crown’s many debts — years of work at the hands of the unwitting Robert Baratheon and the devious Littlefinger — are set to be paid. The Iron Bank’s envoy, Tycho Nestoris, is impressed and seeks further business with the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Her goal requires the Golden Company, the greatest sellsword company in Essos. Tycho agrees to assist her goal — as soon as the gold is in his possession.

GOT - Tycho & CerseiThe gold, along with the grain, is being escorted from Highgarden back to King’s Landing by Jaime Lannister, Bronn, Lord Randyll Tarly and his son, Dickon. Jaime, aware of the incoming winter, asks them all to ensure no granary or farmhouse is left unchecked. They harvest The Reach for the sake of the capital in a desperate attempt to supply their own forces against winter and war. Jaime seems unhappy with the act but knows it needs doing for his and his sister’s sake. Bronn gets a chance to smirk down on the naive and young Dickon Tarly, Sam’s younger brother and a man who had never been in battle before. Unlike his father and brother, Dickon had yet to face any foe with his life on the line.

Their wagon train, however, comes under attack of Dany, Drogon and the Dothraki horde. In that moment, the Dothraki prove right the words of Robert Baratheon so many years back about “only a fool would meet the Dothraki in an open field.” They charge with mad abandon and tear into the Lannister forces. Maybe the battle would have been a draw, but for the presence of Drogon burning gaps in their lines with dragonfire. She tears at the train with precision, burning the Lannisters’ gains and throwing their defense into chaos and confusion. Even Jaime’s vain attempt to have his archers bring Dany down fail. So he sets Bronn to unleashing Qyburn’s scorpion on Drogon…and it works. Sort of.

The sellsword manages to wound the mighty beast to the ground, forcing Dany to dismount and try to dislodge the bolt from her most powerful weapon. Jaime sees an opportunity to strike down the Dragon Queen but as her dragon turns to incinerate him, Bronn saves him from the fire. Both sink into a nearby body of water, unsure of their fates or that of their men. Daenerys remains alive as does Drogon — though what, if anything, that scorpion bolt might do to him remains to be seen.

GOT - Jaime leadsMuch has been paid by these characters to still be alive and still be active in this game of thrones they’re playing. All have been lucky in one way or another. Even so, they carry the wounds and the lessons side by side as they barrel towards the climax. Standing in the distance of the battle, Tyrion Lannister could see his older brother charging at his Queen. The brother he loves and that loves him trying to kill the woman who has found a place of respect and honor for him. Perhaps that is the last lesson these characters will learn — veterans though they are of all the hard lessons these wars have given them. At some point, everyone will have to choose which side they are on and recognize that not everyone will make it out alive. The time for shared allegiances is coming to an end.

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Game of Thrones: Authority & “The Queen’s Justice”

By what right does someone rule? What gives someone the power to decide life and death over others? Several ideas were put forth in this latest episode of “Game of Thrones” over what gives a particular person authority to do what they seek to do. Whether that is to rule, to lead, to defend, to save or to kill, everyone has a particular reason that they believe gives them the right, if not the ability, to act. We all may think we have the answer to someone’s problem, but that does not mean we have such authority. Not that this has ever stopped some of the characters in Westeros.  

For Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, her authority is drawn from her family heritage as the conquerors of the Seven Kingdoms. Her ancestor, Aegon, flew on a dragon and took six of the Seven Kingdoms in his war and then forged his throne out of the swords of his conquered foes. She’s the heir to him and to the Targaryen dynasty that ruled the Seven Kingdoms through periods of conflict as well as periods of peace. More importantly, the army that follows her does so out of loyalty, not fear. She freed the Unsullied and they fight for her. She put her trust in Missandei and Tyrion and they counsel her truly. She gave birth to dragons and they obey her. Denying her authority is denying the power she wields and the heritage she carries.

However, for Jon Snow, the King in the North, it is not enough. He did not want to be in charge but he has constantly been elected to do so. He was chosen by the Sworn Brothers of the Night’s Watch to be Lord Commander.  Then, he was chosen by the lords of the North to be their King. His authority is drawn from being elected by others to his position and not inheritance. As a bastard, he was meant to inherit nothing. But his qualities and his abilities have outshone his status and made him ruler. It’s why the wildlings have come to trust him. It’s why the Northern lords chose him despite aligning himself with widlings, their ancient enemy. His authority is drawn from the trust bestowed upon him by the entire North.

So when these two people come face to face at long last, it shouldn’t be a surprise that neither sees in the other someone to follow. Dany is looking at a potential traitor. Jon is looking at a potential jailer. Having their weapons and boat taken, Jon, Davos and his entourage are now trapped on Dragonstone at the Dragon Queen’s pleasure. Jon is there to try and convince her to side with him in the fight against the White Walkers — a task admittedly difficult given their legendary status. Meanwhile Dany is hearing talk of distant and fantastical threats while her very real and very near enemy — Cersei Lannister — is turning her setbacks into triumphs. It takes the work of Tyrion Lannister, the only one who knows them well enough to see they can help one another, to bridge the gap and help convince Dany to give Jon permission to mine the dragonglass he desperately covets. Maybe out of that can come the start of an alliance.

While Jon ponders his situation, back in Winterfell, Sansa is using her knowledge of the North as a source of authority over the people around her. Yes, she is a Stark, but she’s thinking like a leader. She counsels Lord Royce of the Vale that their armor needs leather to ensure the soldiers won’t freeze. She decrees that all the grain for winter will be kept in the Winterfell storehouses — since, when the White Walkers come, it is there that everyone will run for shelter. She is impressing even Littlefinger with her capacity for decision-making and command. As well she should since she knows what Winterfell is and how the Northerners think. Which is why she thinks Bran will be taking over when he shows up at the gates of Winterfell.

The Stark siblings, long thought lost to one another, bond over their journeys and travails. But Bran explains that he cannot be Lord of Winterfell or anything like his parents or he may have wanted him to be before his journey north of The Wall. His mission is greater now and he gives Sansa a small demonstration of his power by detailing her demeanor the night of her wedding to Ramsay Bolton. For Bran, his authority is drawn from his abilities to see things and know things like no one else in the Seven Kingdoms. But he’s not interested in using it to lead or rule. He, like Jon, knows what is really coming.

Someone else who knows that truth is Samwell Tarly, currently in The Citadel at Oldtown. Sam has never been one to wield authority. If anything, he’s been the antithesis of it, bullied and scared by everyone around him. However, when duty has called, Sam has managed to rise to the occasion time and again. And when Ser Jorah Mormont was dying of greyscale and he knew of a possible cure, Sam’s sense of duty gave him all the authority he needed to try the procedure despite the direct commands of Archmaester Ebrose that he not do so. Sam did it and cured Jorah of his greyscale following the direct instructions he had found. Archmaester Ebrose had no recourse but to excuse the knight, commend Sam for his work and then set him on another thankless task. His reward for his triumph is not being expelled by the Order for disobeying orders.

Disobeying the men of power is how Ellaria Sand and Olenna Tyrell rose to power. For the former paramour of Prince Oberyn Martell, she took her need for revenge and that of his daughters, the Sand Snakes, as a clarion call to rebel against the inaction of Prince Doran Martell of Dorne. Ellaria staged a coup where she killed him, the Sand Snakes killed their cousin and she took vengeance for Oberyn’s death by poisoning Princess Myrcella Baratheon, the nearest Lannister to her.  For her part, Lady Olenna had taken the death of her son and grandchildren to heart and used her need for revenge to take House Tyrell and the Reach into war against the Iron Throne. United in purpose, they had thrown their lot against Cersei Lannister.

But Cersei knows all too well that authority is drawn from power. It’s a lesson she learned from her father — the most ruthless and cunning man in Westeros — and from her husband — wh

o took the Iron Throne from the Targaryens. Cersei has learned that it doesn’t matter what the laws say or duty demands. Family, knowledge, justice, trust. These are mere words to her. Power is power, she once said. As Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, she has the authority to do as she pleases and no one can say a thing. So if she wants to fuck her brother, Ser Jaime, she’ll do so and no one will bat an eye. If she wants to force Ellaria Sand to watch her last living daughter to die from the same poison Myrcella died from, she’ll chain both and order that the torches never go out so Ellaria can see it happen.

Cersei even entertains the Iron Bank’s envoy, promising that the Iron Throne’s many debts to them will be paid in full within two weeks. How can she be so confident when so many are rebelling against her? That’s because despite Dany’s Unsullied taking Casterly Rock, their ancient seat of power, away from them, Jaime and Cersei had set a two-pronged trapped for the Dragon Queen and her forces. On one hand, they used Euron Greyjoy’s Iron Fleet to burn the ships that had ferried the Unsullied to the Rock, trapping them on the wrong end of Westeros. On the other, Jaime took the bulk of the Lannister army and conquered Highgarden, House Tyrell’s stronghold. In so doing, he removes another ally of Dany’s away.

It falls to Jaime then to see to the death of Lady Olenna. And while his sister sought all manners of angry retribution, Jaime convinced her to simply poison her and let her die. Olenna takes this momentary lapse of mercy from the Kingslayer to reveal herself as the architect of Joffrey’s death at his wedding. Certain she’ll escape their wrath, she revels in the moment, detailing the gruesome manner in which Joffrey perished. Then she dies and, with her, House Tyrell dies. All her scheming and plotting, all her and Margaery’s maneuvers for power, die at that moment having done nothing but ensured that a monster sits the Iron Throne. Her biggest move was to kill one possible monster for the love she bore her granddaughter. Thanks to that, one far worse ascended into power and took all she held dear from her.

The idea that one can gain the authority to rule, to command, to lead is a fanciful one. It is one that is often carried only by those who live above a certain sphere in their world. Most of the characters in the world of ice and fire carry no fancy notions of being in charge of an army or of commanding the loyalty of the crowds or of sitting on a throne to rule a nation. The problem becomes when one thinks that this is preordained or incapable of changing. In the six seasons of Game of Thrones, we have seen four people sit the Iron Throne of Westeros, five different Hands of the King/Queen and countless other rulers of various lands and masters of mighty cities deposed. We have also witnessed the end of five of the major houses in Westeros: Baratheon, Bolton, Martell, Frey and Tyrell. Those that are left are weak or finding their own feet after a long and arduous journey. Authority is meaningless without the ability to use it for something. Each of the players in the game of thrones has thought that they were moving towards triumph but most of them have been cast aside into nothingness. 

Ser Davos Seaworth entreats Daenerys that, without uniting their forces, it won’t matter whose skeleton finally manages to win the game and sits the Iron Throne. For the final players that remain, that may end up being the final lesson: when to concede that you do not have the power, the authority, to destroy it all for the sake of beating your enemy. Interestingly, only one man has come face to face with that reality; only one man has had to see a ruler so set in denying his foes a victory that he decided to destroy it all and kill thousands: Ser Jaime Lannister, the Kingslayer. In the moment the Mad King decided to burn all of King’s Landing with wildfire, Jaime decided that Aerys no longer had the authority to rule.

What will he do if he finds himself in a similar spot again?

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“Dunkirk” Review: Survival is Victory

Dunkirk-poster-2349857-600x875It is May 1940. World War II has been raging for less than a full year so far. Nazi Germany had already taken Poland and the British Expeditionary Force along with the Belgian and French armies were busy trying to stop them. When the Germans began their invasion of France and Belgium, they went through the Ardennes Forest and split the Allies into two while also bypassing the positions of the Maginot Line that France had spent years reinforcing. Such was the speed and precision of the Germans that the Allies were forced to slowly retreat back towards the English Channel. This was going to leave them surrounded on all sides by enemy forces. General John Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort, the man leading the BEF, realized that the only way to escape the Nazis was for his forces to be evacuated back to Great Britain. The nearest location that was capable of removing his men? The port of Dunkirk.

Christopher Nolan goes for a smaller, less verbose introduction to his adaptation of the Dunkirk Evacuation. But the gist remains: there are thousands of British and French soldiers trapped against the English Channel who are desperate to get away from the enemy approach. The expected Nazi invasion of the British Isles — what would become the Battle of Britain — has made Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Parliament reticent in putting more ships and planes than necessary at risk. This means the Luftwaffe owns the skies against a small force of Royal Air Force (RAF) fighters who patrol and try to give cover to the ships trying to escape Dunkirk. In order to accelerate the rescue, the Royal Navy sent out an order requisitioning every small vessel available in the south of England — from pleasure boat to ferry —  to head to Dunkirk and assist. Given the shortage of manpower, many of these vessels were crewed by their own civilian staffs, who were asked to head into an active war zone with little time and no means of defending themselves. In the meantime, the soldiers across the Channel had no choice but to wait and wait and hope that they would be rescued.

Dunkirk splits the story into three equally-important elements, each of which take a different length of time. First, there’s the men on the beach at Dunkirk. They’re represented by Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles amongst others. These are soldiers led by Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Col. Winnant (James D’Arcy) who are desperately trying to find any way off the beach and across to England. Their story covers the span of a week. Second, there’s the civilian rescue flotilla AKA “The Little Ships of Dunkirk.” They’re represented by Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney and Barry Keoghan. A dad, his son and his best friend, all locals who opt to take their requisitioned boat and head towards Dunkirk to assist. Their story takes course over a day. Finally, there’s the RAF flying above and trying to give the ships a chance by stopping the Luftwaffe’s bombing runs. They’re represented by Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden. Their story is but one hour.dunkirk-teaser-art

You’ll notice that I have not really mentioned names or characters for most of the actors listed above. That’s by design. Whitehead may be named “Tommy” in the movie, but it’s rarely used and secondary to proceedings. He’s the soldier we follow from the movie’s start as he seeks any way — some more underhanded than others — to get out of Dunkirk. Teaming up with other soldiers, like Barnard’s Gibson and Styles’ Alex, his desperation is punctured by the absence of food, the absence of sound but the wind and the waves at the beach and the absence of dialogue. All these men have one desperate mission: to survive. And he alongside Bonnard, Barnard and the rest are able to be great stand-ins for the men who all they wanted was to live. Sometimes their story becomes hilarious in a dark comedy sort-of-way — they try to find any way off the beach only for it to fail spectacularly. They then have to dust themselves off and try again.

We get to know Mr. Dawson, his son, Peter, and his son’s best friend, George, a bit better. They’re the civilians who choose to take their boat into Dunkirk. Peter and George are on the cusp of manhood, worrying about what mark, if any, they’ll leave on the world. For his part, Mr. Dawson is someone who has served in his time and knows the dangers the boys in Dunkirk face. Along the way they’ll find a marooned soldier (Cillian Murphy) who needs rescue. Their part of the story focuses on the heroism of the civilians who braved the treacherous waters of the Channel as well as the Luftwaffe’s bombing runs and the U-boats patrolling beneath. All four do a good job of juxtaposing their mission against the larger issues at play — why do some run into burning buildings while everyone else is running away?

Finally, there’s Hardy’s Farrier and Lowden’s Collins; the two RAF pilots who patrol the skies above the Channel and try desperately to give the flotilla a fighting chance. Their single hour of combat is focused on finding the Luftwaffe while not running out of fuel. It’s interesting to see Hardy and Lowden have to act with only half their faces visible for the bulk of the movie. They do rather well and manage to represent the heroism of the out-manned pilots fighting in the air. At what point do they turn back for home and leave the stranded men to their fate? Or do they risk their chance to be back home themselves by sacrificing every ounce of fuel to give the ships a fighting chance?

Dunkirk - RAFFor a movie that’s very involved, having a large cast of actors of various levels of fame, that is supposed to take place across three different time periods, it is surprising that it is quite straightforward and simple. Nolan is very direct and clean in his shots, establishing both the geography and the stakes for these men. He engages in very few tricks and allows the lighting, the cinematography and the sound to do a lot of the heavy lifting in those moments where tension is ramped up. In one instance, Tommy, Alex and Gibson have finally gotten aboard a destroyer headed for England. They’re passing the time drinking tea and eating bread with jam. Until one of them hears something streaking in the distance, the fog lights come on and a torpedo is sighted. In these moments, the work of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, composer Hans Zimmer and editor Lee Smith really comes through in building, keeping and not releasing the tension of the moment.

And tension is something that Dunkirk has in spades. These are men fraying after a week of shelling, shooting and desperation. By cutting the three separate story-lines and presenting them one mixed with the other, we are allowed to see similar moments from different angles and know what each person is going through. The desperation of the men trying to escape is combined with the tense rush of the pilots trying to give them a fighting chance mixed with the flotilla’s crews rushing to render aid even as they know they’re out-manned. We might see someone swimming in one moment and then the movie will go back to moments before that person was in the water, showing us how he ended up there. While at first, it was a tad disorienting, you find that you adapt and come to understand why Nolan cut his movie the way he did.   

Writing an entire movie for the first time since 2010’s Inception, it is interesting to focus on what Nolan is after and what he is not. This is not a traditional war movie as we know them. There is no sequence like Saving Private Ryan’s Normandy Beach assault here. In fact, but for a few out-of-focus figures at the end, you see no German soldiers whatsoever in Dunkirk. Their presence is limited to fighter planes and bombers over the English Channel that Farrier and Collins have to shoot down and off-screen shooters taking aim at the English and French soldiers barricaded in the port city. They exist as a threat as existential and present as the vacuum of space in Interstellar — they’re there and they’re a threat that never goes away, but the greater threat is within.Dunkirk - Soldiers 2

Because the more immediate danger for the soldiers in Dunkirk is to lose hope. And you see it. By the time the movie is rolling, the men of the beach have begun to lose hope they will be rescued. They begin to come up with whatever scheme can get them away. Some turn on one another and start accusing each other of being German spies. Others, once rescued, refuse to go back to help or are angry when comrades who appeared to be leaving are forced back by the Luftwaffe.  With food and water growing scarce, with no sight of ships to take them away, morale sinks, discipline falters and an army can quickly devolve into an angry mob. It is surprising how much the actors on the beach do with very little dialogue.  It’s as if the very act of talking would zap whatever tiny hope they had remaining. The leadership of Commander Bolton and Colonel Winnant can only do so much in stemming that tide.

At its core, Dunkirk is a study of men under the greatest of stress and how they respond to it. As you can imagine, not everyone rises to the challenge. But many do. Many keep faith and keep hope. They are helped by those who rise to aid them — the pilots above them and the sailors headed towards them.  But those two groups are also forced to come to terms with their own limitations and own willingness to sacrifice themselves. Are they willing to lay their own lives on the line to save men they do not know? For some, the sacrifice is worthwhile. For others, it may not be. It is this struggle within each and every character that fuels the conflict in Dunkirk.

When the expected disaster at Dunkirk turned into a miracle, Churchill was forced to calm the English people’s triumph by reminding them that the war was not over and that Dunkirk had been not been a victory. Churchill had to follow by proclaiming they would defend the British Isles “on the beaches” and “on the hills” and that they “would never surrender.” In many ways, the spirit of the Dunkirk Evacuation permeated throughout all of England and allowed them to stand while the Battle of Britain raged above them. For his part, Hitler and the Nazi High Command considered Dunkirk a triumph that would ensure the British would never set foot again on European soil.

Dunkirk - FlotillaDunkirk is a war movie where the victory is much more internal than it is external. The battle is one for the spirit of people pushed to the ultimate brink of despair. War dehumanizes people. This is obvious. But we expect that to happen only when bombs and bullets are being fired. However, Dunkirk shows that, in war, even the silence can be treacherous and that stillness can be a mask covering desperation and anguish.  In that, it ensures it will remain relevant for years to come.