Dunkirk by writer/director Chris Nolan is the story of how the British at the beginning of World War II were able to snatch a small victory from the jaws of an enormous defeat.
The Germans had deployed their new military tactic, the Blitzkrieg, to run over the low countries, then conquer France in less than three weeks. In doing so, it defeated the combined French and British armies. The remnants of those armies found themselves on the beaches of Dunkirk, with the Germans on one side and the English Channel on the other. While England was less than fifty miles away, there were almost 400,000 troops on the beaches of Dunkirk and evacuating them would not be easy.
Hitler was convinced by Air Marshall Goering that the task of eliminating the troops on the beach was best left to the Luftwaffe and that the ground attack should be halted. After weeks of non-stop attacks, they could use the rest.
At that time, the British had the largest fleet in Europe, but getting the troops off the Dunkirk beaches was a tactical nightmare. Large ships became easy targets for German bombers, especially the terror-evoking dive bomber, the Stuka.
I saw Dunkirk at the Aero theatre in Santa Monica where the attraction was not only the large screen 70 mm presentation of the movie, but an after-movie talk with the writer-director, himself.
Dunkirk concentrates on three characters: a young British soldier’s attempts to avoid getting killed (designated in the movie with the title, The Land), a British pilot’s crossing the English Channel in a spitfire (the British fighter plane) to shot down German planes harassing the rescue attempt (The Air) and a 50-ish Englishman, played by Mark Rylance, who crosses the channel in his own small boat, the Moonstone, to pitch in (yeah, The Sea).
The movie is all about the special effects and the visuals. There is no attempt to give any of the characters, even the main ones, any kind of back story. Yes, we sympathize with them, but they are fighting Nazis so it isn’t that hard to guess where your sympathies will land.
Perhaps no incident portrays the lack of any serious story telling in the movie better than what happens to a teenage boy who makes the trip from England to Dunkirk on The Moonstone to lend a hand. Along the way, the Moonstone picks up a British sailor whose boat was sunk. He acts very strange and insists that the small boat turn around and go back to England since there was nothing that it could do at Dunkirk. Rylance ignores him and later tells his son that the man is obviously ‘shell-shocked.’ When this sailor tries to physically force Rylance to turn around the boat, he pushes the teenage boy down stairs and the boy hits his head which starts to bleed profusely. As they are caring for this young boy who appears to be in extremis, The boy says that all he ever really wanted is for his name to be in the local newspaper for doing something good. Need I tell you what happens when the boy dies and the Moonstone makes it back to England with a score of rescued soldiers?
And that is how the entire movie moves along, one plodding moment to another. Yes, some of the visuals are very good and so is the sound. You may have noticed that I have not mentioned most of the actors. In fact, in 45 minutes of talking about the making of the movie, neither did Nolan. The actors are irrelevant to his way of making movies. He did go on and on about how he wanted to make a movie to a certain beat or rhythm that would go like a bolero with all crescendos. Yeah, right.
The hook for this movie is that it is ‘unlike any other war movie.’ Not really. The idea of isolating a few stories in a battlefield of dramas is as old as All’s Quiet on the Western Front. Technically, it cannot hold a candle to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. And as for portraying the reality of warfare, Kubrick’s The Paths of Glory is far superior.
So, why all the buzz about Dunkirk? It is fairly short for a ‘war epic’ coming in at 1hr, 46m. And it does have the kind of appeal that video games have. In fact, there were many moments that made me think that Nolan was more inspired by Call of Duty than Battleground. If that is your kind of thing – and Dunkirk’s box office of over $500 million is proof that there are a lot of people (my guess, mostly teenage males) who love this kind of mindless visual house of thrills – then go see it. Believe me, it’s a hell of a ride, if not much of a movie.