DUNKIRK thunderously echoes the 1940 disaster/miracle it portrays. Undeniably, director-writer Christopher Nolan’s take on the immortal WW2 retreat is a daring technical and logistical coup, pounding through 106 minutes of immersive, you-are-there adrenaline rushing immediacy. Critics were generally dazzled by this 2017 epic, which cost somewhere in the realm of $100-150,000,000, made little use of CGI, most filming done at the French coastal location where it happened. Thrill-seduced audiences (cued to queue by this Age of Endless War) shelled out $527,300,000. Some, like yours truly, raised on decades of war movies, endless stories of WW2 and having some knowledge of history were amped to see a big-time replay of how 338,226 Allied troops were saved, by nine days of circumstance and valor, from certain Nazi annihilation on the channel beaches of Dunkerque. Others, most, many of them fans of the director’s nifty use of time fragmentation, were up for a rush, neither knowing nor caring about the title event (some were doubtless notified by cheesily branding an ad on 4,000,000 cups at 3,000 Carls, Jr. locations—history with that side of fries).
Nolan’s muse about tweaking time in his films found a sensible platform here for conceptualizing numerous days of combat with scattered characters over different natural and spatial elements. His bare-bones script mixes up the temporal strata and switches back & forth between a week of perilous events on land, a single traumatic day at sea and one furious hour in the air, having the triple strands barrel toward a collision, hastened by an insistent soundtrack that literally ticks to amplify the tension. Few name actors appear—Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy—and their contributions are subdued and brief: the rest of the cast are new (and interchangeable) faces. No one gets a “big moment”, though Jack Lowden’s pilot desperately trying to break out of his downed Spitfire’s flooding cockpit is a good candidate.
The stellar cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema and the boost effects from a hard-working sound crew work vigorously in the plentiful action scenes, which include an unnerving bombardment from whining Stuka dive bombers, fast-moving aerial tangles and a couple of hair-raising ship sinkings. Superb stuff.
Several full-size warships were employed, more than 50 seagoing vessels altogether, including 12 of the actual surviving “little ships”, as well as refitted aircraft, some big models and a few authentic Spitfires.
So far, so good—very good. It’s quite a show, with the sensationally crafted action going on. BUT… it’s kept from greatness by the narrow focus of Nolan’s ambition, which, while it certainly jars attention and earns applause for ingenuity and skill, also leaves shrapnel-sized holes where a less-mechanized filmmaker would allow a touch of heart and simple clarity. Perhaps a film artisan more truly interested in making one of the more momentous events in history’s greatest conflict better understood and appreciated— a bit less like a thrill-ride for a modern mass audience that, in all likelihood, can’t find England or France on a map, and confuse Hitler with Vietnam. *
Nolan: “The empathy for the characters has nothing to do with their story. I did not want to go through the dialogue, tell the story of my characters…The problem is not who they are, who they pretend to be or where they come from. The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it? Will they be killed by the next bomb while trying to join the mole? Or will they be crushed by a boat while crossing?”
He may as well be a general. So much for the people: they’re just digits, with zero character development, no backstory, zip investment in any of the barely sketched individuals–when the kid on Rylance’s boat dies, the reaction from script and actors amounts to a shrug. The headlong rush to keep us breathless is compelling, but in so little involvement with affected humans and no greater perspective about How, Who, What and Why, all we’re left with is When. If the movie is not about War, but Survival, why even bother to pick Dunkirk? At least don’t pose you’re telling its story. Defenders of Nolan’s bold, brazen but bloodless take argue he didn’t wish to emulate other big, long war epics that bog things down with tiresome exposition. Trimming fat, he cuts it lean, but it’s sliced too thin to fully sate a whetted appetite.
Likewise, the vast mob scene around Dunkirk was an awesome spectacle, yet while this telling has spectacular sequences and moments, they also suffer from the productions very restriction to live-action, making for an “epic” that has all the noise-battered commotion happening in an underpopulated foreground. Along with perspective, scope is absent. Nolan shows a few ships and a scattering of the small boats. 861 vessels were involved. 243 were sunk. More than 400 aircraft from both sides went down. 1,000 extras, along with a host of cardboard cutouts, were employed, but that’s but an obvious pittance when suggesting a place jammed with a quarter-million men. Scarcely a vehicle is shown, though the collapsing British Expeditonary Force left behind at least 600 tanks, 45,000 assorted trucks and lorries, 20,000 motorbikes, 2,500 large-caliber guns, umpteen thousands of smaller weapons: the beach was strewn with equipment. In the film, it’s clean. The lack of framing ignores, for example, the 4-day siege of Lille, where the valiant French garrison kept seven German divisions away from the beach. In the movie, the city of Dunkerque looks untouched, beyond a few sandbags in the opener. In reality it was devastated, with over 1,000 civilians killed. The 123,000 French troops who were evacuated are mentioned, but that’s about all they rate in the script.
Hans Zimmer’s loud score came in for a good deal of griping. It didn’t faze this viewer, but sound—both over & under-done— is an irritating aspect that plagues the entire film. The dialogue (not much to start with, nary a quotable line) is too often muffled and/or mumbled (many complaints about this): flatly, it’s artistic pretense. Why should you need bloody subtitles to understand what a Shakespearean-trained actor (Branagh) is saying to a man standing two feet from him? As for noise, veterans told Branagh the soundtrack was louder than the battle. Those rifle shots at the beginning are remarkably jolting, making for a startling scene, but they’re loud as cannons. As an effect, cool. As truth, too much.
When emotion other than fright does arrive—the small boats (well, a dozen of them) show up and are cheered by men (on one passing ship)—because the focus has been constrained, there is no moving payoff of relief or palpable sense of the collective enormity of the action. Lastly, the conclusion sinks into an afterthought zone, with a lifeless recitation of Churchill’s legendary “fight on the beaches” speech. People with a sense of what happened and what that meant are deflated; others, not grasping relevance, are left in Whateverland.
A number of reviews take the sound mix to task, others lament the lack of scale, but the majority lean to salute, often with stintless over-praise nearing awe. Dial back on the gushing. It is a very good film, but hardly the be-all/end-all of the genre.
The Academy Awards, as expected, laid it on with a barrage, winning Oscars for Film Editing, Sound Mixing and Sound Editing and offering nominations for Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Music Score and Production Design. With Fionn Whitehead, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney, Harry Styles, James D’Arcy, Aneurin Bernard.
* History, one of the more fascinating of subjects, is so poorly taught— if it even is—that it’s no wonder people fall for the sort of cruel lunatics and certifable morons that run their countries and hold a button on their very lives.
Mini-rant over, we mention—-Branagh’s ‘Commander Bolton’ was a composite/facsimile of real people like Cmdr. James Clouston (who was killed on the way back across the Channel). The storyline of the character well-played by Rylance parallels the exploits of the hardy Charles Lightoller, famous from RMS Titanic, who piloted a small boat during the evacuation.
For a solid, old-school look at the event, seek out 1958’s Dunkirk, with John Mills, Richard Attenborough and Bernard Lee. Want to touch the feel of the period and smile over a trenchant look at how the catastrophic defeat was played as an uplifting victory, see the wonderful Their Finest, also from 2017. Two Churchill movies came out the same year. One hopes they at least did a better job with the Lion’s indispensable speech. Lastly, I liked Dunkirk, and will enjoy watching it again, but I stand by my complaints. Isn’t that what the fighting was about?