Dunkirk: A Review


The last time I wrote about Christopher Nolan, I praised the denouement of his Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises.  In the intervening years, he has gone on to produce what many call his magnum opus, Interstellar.  But he has now ventured onto my turf in the area of history, with the newly released Dunkirk.  Having just seen it this past weekend, I thought I would give my two cents on the film.

The history that the film dramatizes is simple enough to understand:  following their invasion of Poland in 1940, Britain and France declared war on the Germans.  The British sent a large army–some 400,000 troops–to help defend the French against the Nazi attack.  But the Germans did an end run around France’s western defenses, invading through Belgium and the Netherlands instead, and wound up trapping French and British troops as they retreated to the coast at the city of Dunkirk in the Netherlands.  The Germans surrounded the Allied armies, but, for reasons that are still debated, decided to halt outside Dunkirk, and let the Luftwaffe take out the more than 400,000 troops stranded on the beach.  This gave the Allies time to organize defenses and began evacuating troops.  In the end, more than 330,000 British and French troops were evacuated with the help of civilian boats ferrying soldiers to destroyers from the beach.  (Many of the French troops were either killed or captured, however.)

Nolan’s film sets up a tripartite narrative:  it begins with a young soldier in Dunkirk looking for a place to pee, and follows him throughout the film, trying to get to a ship and out of harm’s way.  It also follows a civilian with a boat which is requisitioned to go to Dunkirk and pick up soldiers, as well as a fighter pilot engaged in combat.  Each of these strands is fitted to a different timeline:  the young soldier’s story takes place over one week (the operation itself lasted from May 26-June 4 1940), the boat over one day (the last day in which soldiers got out), and for the pilot, one hour, all converging on the final point when the survivors arrive back in Britain.

Some have complained that this device made it hard to keep track of the story, as the film moves back and forth between these three timelines, but I did not find it hard to follow. Each narrative thread had a protagonist with an identifiable goal they were trying to achieve: the young soldier’s goal was to get off the beach and back home; the goal of the boat owner was to rescue as many men as his boat could carry; and the fighter pilot’s goal was to shoot down as many enemy planes as he could before his fuel ran out.  This device was probably necessary, since everyone knows (or should know) how the events themselves turned out.  Nolan, with help from Hans Zimmer’s score, used these individual narratives to create dramatic tension which would otherwise not have been possible.  (As an aside, I highly recommend seeing the film in an IMAX theater, as I did.   Normally I would not do so, but I felt this enhanced the experience of watching the film in this case.)

The film is in some ways classic Nolan:  amazing visual scenes (especially of capsizing ships and aerial combat), a gift for building tension via dramatic set pieces, and a focus on the psychological aspects of character (well, one at least: a shell shocked soldier played by the wonderful Cillian Murphy).  As in most of his other films, his characters are not necessarily the most easy to connect with; the young soldier, played by Harry Styles, barely has any lines at all, as does Tom Hardy’s fighter pilot, and other than for the boat owner played by Mark Rylance, we are never really given much of an insight into why each character is trying to achieve their goals.  And yet in another sense, the movie is unlike Nolan’s other movies:  I am thinking of The PrestigeInception, and The Dark Knight, in particular.  There is no attempt at philosophizing, no pretentious speeches, and the very laconic nature of the characters in Dunkirk, as well as their relative lack of development, embody the spirit that is encapsulated by those iconic British posters from that era: “Keep Calm, and Carry On.”  This works well, as the film’s protagonists are really stand-ins for the British people as a whole, and their determination to fight.  The film is primarily about that, and not overcoming the Nazis (indeed, the Nazis are never mentioned in the film, and I believe the word German is spoken only once).  Fittingly, it ends with the young soldier reciting from Churchill’s speech to the House of Commons on June 4 (the “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech).

Now, it is true that one can fetishize the WWII generations too much; I’ve never cared greatly for the whole idea of “The Greatest Generation” in American history, and indeed I find the whole idea of separating people by generations artificial and unnecessarily divisive.  But it is unwise to deny that the ideal that the episode in Dunkirk inspires–the idea of the stoic Britons doing their duty with a stiff upper lip, and getting on with their job in spite of danger, death, etc.–is a real and powerful one.  It is probable that Nolan imbibed some of this from his parents; if so, his film does great credit to such an ideal. Some reviewers have complained about the story’s focus on the British, to the exclusion of the French, or its lack of minority characters (there are some black African French troops show at the beginning, for what it’s worth) but I don’t think most people will take these criticisms seriously.  Nor should they.  The film is not Nolan’s best, but is a fine one, and does justice to the people that were involved in Operation Dynamo and those to whom it symbolized what was best about their country.


~ by Alypius on July 25, 2017.

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