Reviews: Dunkirk

We will fight them in the Multiplexes

Dunkirk is a taut arty recreation of Operation Dynamo that took place between May 26th and June 4th, 1940 where Britain managed to rescue about 400,000 of their own and allied troops that were encircled by the Germans and trapped on a sliver of land on the coast.

The operation is famous for its use of civilian craft and the sheer number rescued after the humiliating defeat on the mainland. It inspired newly elected Prime Minister Winston Churchill to make his “we will fight them on the beaches” speech.

The Good: Christopher Nolan has shown himself a brilliant director since “The Following” in 1998 and simply has not been as on top of his game as in this film. He uses, what could easily be a gimmick, an anachronic order of three separate time lines told simultaneously. I usually dislike movies that are not told in a simply chronological order but it simply works brilliantly here fitting both the material and the stories told within.

The movie is also a wonderfully minimalist affair with music used sparingly to create a great effect when it does appear and a taut running time that bluntly is a relief. Too often both war epics, recent Christopher Nolan films (I am looking your way Interstellar) and “important movies” in general seem to pad the running time to a kidney-busting three hours packing every piece of flotsam and jetsam surrounding the main story hoping something sticks with the audience.

The acting and cinematography are also top notch. The air combat scenes filmed with real fighter aircraft of the era are a sight to behold and simply a triumph.

The Bad: While the anachronic order certainly does work brilliantly upon reflection of the entire film, one can find it disorienting during the actual viewing if one does not expect it going in.

Nolan does an incredible job recreating the time period using actual ships that were at the evacuation and filming on the actual beach. However, his refusal to use CGI does create a city of Dunkirk that is remarkable intact compared to the actual city of that day and a beach that is not strewn with the hundreds of tanks and thousands of vehicles the British and French abandoned. While that is certainly excusable as an artistic choice the modern seat patterns on the train are a surprising anachronism.

In Conclusion: As the son of a man who survived the blitz and a grandson of a Royal Navy officer, I am certain my tearing eyes and warm feeling during the film will not be shared by all. It is, however, even for those with no personal connection, a brilliant combination of direction, cinematography, and music that is a filmmaking triumph. One of the best film I have seen this year.

Powerful and Innnovative, But Deeply Flawed

When people make enough movies in a given genre, they ultimately end up doing the same things quite often, resulting in the establishment of various tropes and cliches. War movies are no exception, so Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk tries to break from tradition in some ways, with mixed results.

As the title would indicate, the film is about the evacuation of Allied forces from Dunkirk during World War II. It focuses on three separate plotlines- a soldier trying to escape, a pleasure boater who's taking part in the evacuation effort, and fighter pilots battling with the German air force- which take place over different spans of time and intersect. The pacing is quite fast, and never lets up for a moment, while switching between the stories keeps things from getting dull, which helps emphasize the constant sense of peril the soldiers feel. In that sense, the movie effectively captures and conveys the horrors of war, and there are many powerful emotional moments, from when the movie opens with the soldiers on the beaches, to when it closes with the soldiers back in Britain, ready to continue the fight.

All this sounds fairly compelling, and much of it is, so what's the problem? Hardly any of the characters get anything resembling a backstory or a personality. While I have heard Nolan's argument that those things are irrelevant in a battle for survival, they're also a large part of the reason why we care about main characters more than the nameless extras who die en masse, since they give those characters individuality and make them memorable. Without any of that, the film is essentially a story full of extras, and we have little reason to care whether any of the people we've seen so far make it out alive.

On a similar note, while the Allied soldiers get hardly any characterization, the Axis forces don't get any at all, simply being shown as gunshots from the distance and planes swooping in for attack runs. This isn't as much of a bad thing, considering that it does keep the focus on the protagonists' struggle for survival, but it also serves to dehumanize the enemy. This is essentially a trade-off- it fits with the film Dunkirk is trying to be, but comes at a price.

Perhaps I'm biased, but I personally believe that deliberately shortchanging characters in terms of development and characterization almost never works well. All in all, I can appreciate what Dunkirk set out to do, and also can concede it did some things well, but I can't wholeheartedly recommend it unless you're fine with its narrative shortcomings.

Dun Well

Whilst waiting for this movie to start, there was a trailer for a Churchill biopic called Darkest Hour, during which one of the lines was something to the effect of "As Europe falls, one man took a stand...". As soon as Dunkirk was over, I wanted to rewind the cinema screen all the way back, just so I can tell that trailer to fuck off. "One man" indeed!

Dunkirk has a lot in common with the greats like Das Boot, in that it is less of a war movie and more of an exhausting survival horror. We don't see politicians debating at tables, or generals next to big maps, we don't even see the opposition themselves. They are simply referred to as the "enemy", and exist as a distant threat in the form of bullets, torpedoes, and screaming dive bombers. Worse enemies still are the shell shock, the bitter coldness and the claustrophobia. This is a movie where the war is at all times seen at a human eye level, and it is all the more compelling for it.

Dunkirk is a combination of three intertwining, non-chronological stories. The first is of a fleeing soldier trying to find a safe way across the channel over the course of a week. The next is of an old sailor and his boys, trying to mount the rescue, told in the space of one day. The final is that of a Spitfire pilot, trying to stop the Luftwaffe, with only an hour's worth of fuel. Very little is actually said throughout the movie, the characters are few, and we don't learn most of their names. Instead there is a tremendous amount of human drama, especially as politics still find a way to creep in, such as the arbitrary and inhumane decision to force the french soldiers to the back of the evacuation queues.

I'm struggling to find things that I don't like about the movie, and the only thing I can come up with is how Director Christopher Nolan continues to punish Tom Hardy by yet again requiring him to speak in an upper-class English accent, made incomprehensible by a clumsy oxygen mask. For most of the movie it is near impossible to tell what he and the other pilots are saying half the time.

Nolan is still the champion of making loud, thoughtful, powerful spectacle, and this is one you should absolutely go to the cinema to see. Just sit down and soak it all in.