"Dunkirk" writer/director Christopher Nolan, along with his wife and producing partner, Emma Thomas, has crafted a bigger-than-life, historically accurate account of the evacuation at Dunkirk. It is a truly remarkable story --- one that Nolan has wanted to tell on film for a very long time. With 400,000 soldiers stranded on the beaches at Dunkirk, the enemy quickly bearing down on them, time was running out to save at least a majority of the men.
The timeline of the actual evacuation was from May 27th to June 4th, 1940. It was the beginning of WWII and the British Expeditionary Force, along with Belgian, French and Canadian troops, was pushed back to the beaches by the Germans. Because of the shallow depths of the sea, British ships couldn't get close enough to provide rescue.
As the true account goes, a call went out to all British private boat owners to aid in the evacuation of these hopelessly stranded soldiers. This is my problem with "Dunkirk". Nolan has chosen to elucidate his telling with factions on land, air and sea.
The harrowing predicament of hundreds of thousands literally out in the open like sitting ducks, is overwhelming, but because of Nolan's tagline, "When 400,000 men couldn't get home...home came for them.", I presumed a great deal more of his film would center on all of those civilian boats coming to the rescue.
Instead, Nolan focuses on one boat, the "Moonstone", helmed by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his 19-year-old son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter's friend, George (Barry Keoghan), a 17-year-old seeking an adventure. Halfway to Dunkirk, they pick up a lone survivor of a torpedoed ship known only as "Shivering Soldier" (Cillian Murphy). He's a shell-shocked mess, demanding that Mr. Dawson turn his boat away from Dunkirk and return to England.
On the beach, Nolan's script follows Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles), three very young soldiers whose paramount concern is their survival. In the sky, manning the RAF Spitfires, are Collins (Jack Lowden), the youngest pilot, and Farrier (Tom Hardy), the more experienced RAF fighter. Despite their small numbers, these pilots are doing their best to destroy the Luftwaffe planes which are pummeling the men and ships below.
"Dunkirk" is nonstop action, literally, as Nolan flashes back and forth between the trapped men on the ground, the tense battles in the air and the almost futile excursion of the "Moonstone". A sense of dread is pervasive --- along with the ever presence of death. Oh --- and before you even think it --- I am well aware that this is a war movie and there is a need for realism. However, I do not find it entertaining to be constantly nauseated for 106 minutes. "Dunkirk" is perpetually jarring --- I jumped and squealed at least a half dozen times --- which would be acceptable if I were invested in any of these characters.
There are sensational accolades for Nolan's achievements here. The film I would have preferred could have focused more on the how and whys of the civilian ships and the incredibly brave people who ventured across the channel aboard them.
I know I was present and fully awake during our screening, but somehow I either missed or Nolan chose to gloss over how all of these boats were called into service. Dawson's lovely wooden pleasure yacht was being commandeered by the Navy, but he, Peter and George left their slip before the sailors returned. Thus, at the end of "Dunkirk" --- when many other British seagoing vessels appeared, it was rather puzzling. Kenneth Branagh, who plays British
Naval Commander Bolton, had tears in his eyes. Surely, he must have known they were coming.
"Dunkirk" is being praised as Nolan's finest work to date --- and the best war movie, perhaps ever. I simply cannot agree. Luckily, it is brilliantly edited by Lee Smith, but, at a relatively short running time for an "epic", the characters are not developed enough to allow us to care about their survival. Except for poor George --- I did feel for him.
Opinion: Mild Wait for DVD
Christopher Nolan is not your conventional film director. With inventive films like "Inception" and "Memento" in his body of work, the techniques he uses in "Dunkirk", although a unique approach, are not surprising.
He depicts the evacuation of several hundred thousand military men hailing from Great Britain, France and Belgium stranded on the beaches at Dunkirk. But what Nolan decided to do is present, in rapidly alternating fashion, airplane dogfights, sea rescues by military and civilian vessels, and hordes of infantry soldiers hustled aboard waiting destroyers.
It may sound strange to abandon a dogfight in the sky repeatedly, for example, and come back to it many times over, Yet it works as far as audience perception is concerned --- and without any loss of suspense. No doubt that "Dunkirk" is technologically well conceived and crafted. Unfortunately, a clever idea and expert editing cannot compensate for a dearth of human emotions.
We are aware that the military personnel are essentially trapped at Dunkirk, even though, in the case of the Brits, their homeland is only 26 miles away. But the reality is we don't know these soldiers at all. We see them being killed and maimed as the horrific bombings and strafing by the migs is intensified by visual effects and extreme use of sound. And we watch as the lucky survivors scramble to get to any safe transport available. But there is very little emotional investment on our part watching this film because we know nothing of these men.
Mark Rylance as the pleasure boat captain, Mr. Dawson, provides the most empathy. He is clearly a civilian who feels compelled to risk his life and that of his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney). When tragedy does strike their little vessel, we feel bad for the loss of a young man, but we are not devastated.
It may be unfair to compare "Dunkirk" to a classic like "Saving Private Ryan", but in the hands of Steven Spielberg, audiences were totally immersed on a human level. That is not the case here.
Furthermore, much of what transpires in "Dunkirk" has been done before. The near-drowning scene of one of the pilots is tense enough, but hardly new. The airplane battles are also well choreographed, but again, we've seen it all in other films.
The most suspenseful sequence in "Dunkirk" takes place when two soldiers (including headliner Fionn Whitehead), espy a wounded confederate on the beach, and race with him on a stretcher along the mole, a long narrow wooden breakwater, to reach a rescue destroyer. This is clearly their ticket to get back to England. Scenes like this are punctuated with an excellent score by Academy Award winner Hans Zimmer.
Nolan and others associated with the movie talk about the importance of this evacuation effort in terms of World War II history. Without this operation, they say, the Germans would have conquered England, and the world may look a lot different than it does today. But that is only marginally addressed in "Dunkirk", which could have lent a truer atmosphere of urgency.
What looks like a successful marketing campaign on behalf of "Dunkirk", plus Christopher Nolan's name on the finished product, will obviously go a long way to ensure the film's success. Unfortunately, I do not consider "Dunkirk" to be entertainment for the masses.
Opinion: Wait for DVD