Quotes of the Day in Another Crazy Week in America
What do you say about this week? I have no words. Or few words. Or fewer words than normal.
OK, I have other people's words. That makes it easier.
Steve Bannon got the axe yesterday, and he went out with a promise to bring his, you know, fire and fury back to his alt-right/white supremacist/neo-Nazi website Breitbart, which has been spewing bullshit for years. (I've mostly followed its shoddy reporting on, and attacks of, Hollywood and the American film community.) Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker has a good piece, “The Rise and Fall of Steve Bannon,” in which he parses the particular idiocy of the Trump administration:
“In previous White Houses, officials downplayed this sort of internal combat, insisting that everyone was united around the President's agenda. But in the Trump White House there is no Trump agenda. There is a mercurial, highly emotional narcissist with no policy expertise who set up—or allowed his senior staffers to set up—competing ideological fiefdoms that fight semi-public wars to define the soul of Trumpism.”
Is there a particular idiocy to Trump? Following Trump's doubling-down on defending the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., Jimmy Kimmel had a great monologue on Tuesday. You can see it here. I particularly like the moment, at 7:20 or so, when he reminds us of the lowlights of this presidency. Because we tend to forget. Because there's so many of them. But here we go:
Then he moves into the White House. Right off the bat, he's angry at the media for reporting that the crowd at his inaugruation was smaller than it was. Which was weird, but not important, really. And he claimed it stopped raining when he was speaking at his inaugural address, which ... everyone could see it was raining. But OK, it was his first week, you give him a break. So he gets in there, hires his daughter, hires his son-in-law, demands an investigation of voter fraud even though he won the election; he calls the prime minister of Australia and hangs up on him, he won't shake Angela Merkel's hand, he doesn't know Frederick Douglass isn't alive; he claims he can't release his tax returns because they're under audit, then says he's not going to release them at all; he signs a ban on Muslims that he claims isn't a ban on Muslims; he compliments the president of the Philippines for murdering drug addicts; hours after a terror attack on London he starts a fight with their mayor; after criticizing Obama for playing golf he plays golf every weekend; he accidentally shares classified intelligence with the Russians; he tweets a typo at midnight, then wakes up and claims it was a secret message; he praises Jim Comey in February, calls him a coward in June, and fires him, and he lashes out at his own attorney general for recusing himself from the investigation; he hires the Mooch, he fires the Mooch, he bans transgenders in the military without telling anyone in the military he's doing it; he plays chicken with Kim Jong Un ... And that's just some of the list!
Trump just moves from disaster to disaster, declaring victory all the while. We've had bad presidents, incompentent ones, malicious ones, racist ones, but never all of those elements together in one clownsuit. The fact that we ever elected him remains a dark day for American democracy.
Meanwhile, infamous conspiracy theorist Alex Jones (9/11 was an inside job, Sandy Hook shooting was 'a total hoax') was on the streets of my city, Seattle, yesterday, apparently looking for someone to talk to. But not really. He just wants to spew. He and others on the right want to make Seattle the new Hollywood: a perennial right-wing punching bag. According to KOMO News, he said, “These people are bots, they're in a cult. 'Can you speak?' We're trying to see if any of these folks can speak out here.” Hey Alex, it's called the Seattle Freeze. Get used to it. Someone supposedly threw coffee on him but that was probably staged. He asked to talk to a city councilman but got this response: “I don't talk to racist fucks.” Love that. But my favorite part of KOMO's piece was this graf:
Jones also had plenty of defenders on Twitter, including @SeigHeil1, who asked people to pray for Jones as he was “surrounded by pharmaceutically deranged communists in Seattle.”
When you're defenders are @SeigHeil1, who needs enemies?
Meanwhile, on Twitter, Dinesh D'Souza is still peddling his idiot “Democrats started the KKK” argument. He got this response:
And then...the 20th century happened. Google it Dinesh. https://t.co/oWvuUzrEl0— Avi Asher-Schapiro (@AASchapiro) August 18, 2017
But my favorite tweet of the week, in a week in which many were suddenly talking about taking down Confederate statues, and others, from Pres. Trump to Tucker Carlson, were arguing that this was tantamount to destroying our history, amid all that hubub, we got this:
Are we going to take down this statue of Trump and Mitch McConnell? pic.twitter.com/EHSxDBJN5Z— Talia (@2020fight) August 17, 2017
Celebrating Jeff Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson. Who could object?
I remember the first time I saw Stone Mountain in Georgia. My sister lived in Atlanta in the late 1990s, I was visiting, and I'd already gone to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center (which disappointed), the Ebenezer Baptist Church (cool), and MLK's childhood home (intriguing for imagining a young MLK running around). I'd walked the walk along Peachtree Street and Auburn Avenue, and had seen—hadn't I?—the old SCLC office, next to some liquor store in a rundown section of town. I'd shaken my head over that. Shouldn't there be upkeep? Shouldn't that be preserved?
All of that I did on my own. Then one day, as a group, we did Stone Mountain, 20 miles outside Atlanta and referenced in MLK's “I Have a Dream” speech. From the get-go, I felt like I'd landed in an alternate reality or enemy territory. I suppose I had. There was this big bas-relief sculpture carved into the mountain of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis. “It's a Confederate Mount Rushmore,” I thought. But it was the walkway in the park that really got me. Different slabs indicated, as if they were points of pride, when each Confederate state seceded from the union. Here went South Carolina, there went North Carolina. This is when Virginia took up arms. And Georgia.
Civil War history? Not exactly. The relief sculpture was first conceived by Mrs. C. Helen Plane, charter member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, in 1916, 50 years after the end of the Civil War, during the excitement following the release of D.W. Griffith's “The Birth of a Nation” and the subsequent rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. All that rewriting going on. At the time, the mountain was owned by the Venable brothers, William and Samuel, the latter of whom was involved in the KKK, and they leased the north face of the mountain for the sculpture. Work started in the 1920s, stopped, stuttered. Decades went by. It gained momentum again during the civil rights movement but it wasn't officially completed until 1973, by which time the state of Georgia owned Stone Mountain. Not sure when the secessionist walkway was built. Either way, the thing is recent history.
I've always wondered over almost any kind of memoralization or romanticization of the Confederacy. “The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down”? Isn't that really about the end of slavery? So why does The Band make it seem sad? Why the Confederate flag on the Gen. Robert E. Lee for the good ol' boys of “Dukes of Hazard”? Isn't this a symbol of ... defection? Treason? It felt like a disconnect. It felt like the true meaning of the thing was always passed over, swept aside, handled with a wink.
Not anymore. Maybe we can thank Trump and the white nationalists for this. Maybe it's the one thing in this long awful year we can thank them for.
M's Game: Now Pitching for the Mariners ... Someone
Second pitch. Pay attention, girls.
Is it possible for even the most gung-ho fan to keep track of Mariners starting pitching anymore? This was our rotation at the beginning of the year:
- Felix Hernandez
- Hisashi Iwakuma
- James Paxton
- Ariel Miranda
- Yovani Gallardo
- Felix Hernandez (DL: 10)
- Hisashi Iwakuma (DL: 60)
- James Paxton (DL: 10)
- Ariel Miranda
- Yovani Gallardo
- Erasmo Ramirez? (traded for: July 28)
- Andrew Albers? (purchased: Aug. 12)
- Marco Gonzales? (traded for: July 21)
Iwakuma lasted just six starts (I never got to see him), Felix a lucky 13 (I never got to see him) and Paxton, who became our ace, 20 (yeah, never saw him, either).
All in all, we've had 16 pitchers start games this season. I've seen Miranda twice, Gallardo twice, and Andrew Moore, who made his Major League debut in June and was sent back to the minors in July, twice. I was there for Dillon Overton's only start in May (he lasted 3 1/3; he's now with San Diego), one of Sam Gaviglio's starts (he's had 11, the most for any of the non-five), and yesterday, against Baltimore, before the M's roadtrip for the rest of August, I was there with my friend Andy on a sunny Wednesday afternoon to see Marco Gonzales make his third start for the team since being acquired from St. Louis in late July. Previously he'd lasted 4 innings against KC and 4 1/3 against the Angels. The hope was he'd go longer.
It didn't look good at the outset. O's shortstop Tim Beckham sent Marco's second pitch into the right-field bleachers. Then he settled down, the M's scored some runs—chiefly on new acquisiton Yonder Alonso's first homer as an M—and Marco took a 3-1 lead into the 5th. He needed just two outs to have his longest outing since Sept. 14, 2014, when he went 5 2/3 for St. Louis against Colorado. He got the first out fast: Chris Davis went swinging. This was followed by a single, a single, a wild pitch, a triple, a single, a single, and there went that chance. It's all Scott Servais could stands, he could stands no more. In came Tony Zych—the last word in M's relief. He got the next two guys and ultimately the win.
It wasn't a bad game. They had the lead, we tied it and took it; then they tied it and took it. In the bottom of the 5th, the M's scored 3 right back again (single, HBP, single, pop out, single, single, single, double play), then tacked on another in the 6th on Leonys Martin's solo shot to make it 7-4. In the 9th, with this cushiest of closer leads, fireballer Edwin Diaz came in and ... couldn't find the plate. Three walks in a row to load the bases. Then Manny Machado hit a sac fly (speared by Martin, nicely, in right center), and Schoop struck out, and he seemed nearly out of it. Until he hit the next two guys with pitches. That made it 7-6, bases loaded, and Servais went to the pen again. For Marc Rzepczynski. Who, as if to show Diaz how it's done, struck out Chris Davis on three pitches. Happy walk home.
A week ago, when the M's were the second team in the wild-card hunt, the game might've felt important. But that was before the M's five-game losing streak, mostly to the Angels. No one can seem to hold onto that second wild card spot, can they? The Royals surged, claimed it, then fell back. Same, at various times, with the Rays, M's, Twins. Now it's the Angels turn. Even the Rangers are still in the hunt. The M's are just 1.5 back, but with three teams between them and the golden (brass/tin) ring, and with this rotation made up of wire and chewing gum, which is why nothing yesterday felt particularly urgent. Andy and I talked about a recent trip he'd made to the Olympic peninsula, politics, of course (to vent, more anything), and Charlottesville. We chatted up a wedding party seated next to us—half of them were from Balmer—then met up with our friend Paige, who had taken her boy and two of his friends to the game and were sitting 30 rows back of the M's dugout. Paige, a big Seahawks fan, didn't get that 9th inning, but that's baseball. It's certainly M's baseball.
It was my ninth game at Safeco this year. They're 5-4.
Movie Review: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2002)
It would be tough to imagine a more light-hearted, lyrical movie about the horrors of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Normally I’d cry bullshit, but writer-director Dai Sijie based the movie on his own novella, which was based on his own experiences being re-educated in rural Sichuan province near the Tibet border from 1971 to 1974. Plus the movie is just lovely. Plus he gives us the lovelier Zhou Xun in the title role (not Balzac; the other one).
At times I was reminded of the Danish coming-of-age film “Twist and Shout.” In both, two boys, between capers, respond to world events (Cultural Revolution; Beatlemania) and feel the deep ache of first love. In both, there’s an illegal abortion. In both, you can’t help but fall in love with the girl, too.
I was also reminded of “Pygmalion”: men attempting to educate a provincial woman. There are layers upon layers of irony in this. The two boys, Ma (Liu Ye) and Luo (Chen Kun), are sent to Sichuan province to unlearn western values and learn the deep, simple truths of peasants as dictated by Chairman Mao. Instead, they steal western literature, Balzac chiefly, and inculcate the little Chinese seamstress (Zhou) on the very thing they’re supposed to be unlearning: western values. Near the end, they toast each other for doing this well.
How well do they do this? She leaves them.
What Paris is
When they first arrive in the rural, mountainous village, one anticipates the worst. They’re out-of-their-element city boys whose very strength—their smarts—has been deemed a moral weakness, a plague upon the country and culture. A book they bring with them, a book of recipes for God’s sake, is torn up and thrown into the fire by the village leader (Wang Shuangbao) as being too bourgeois. He nearly does the same with Ma’s violin, too, which he thinks is a child’s toy, but Luo saves it. He says that it plays music. He gets Ma to play a Mozart sonata and lies about its provenance. He says it’s a mountain song entitled “Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao.” The violin is saved.
I kept expecting a comeuppance that never came. Yes, their job is to lug vats of liquid shit up the mountains, spilling it over themselves as they go, but soon the capers begin. They sneak to a nearby village to watch its girls bathing beneath a waterfall. One of them is the little Chinese seamstress, who becomes fascinated with the city boys. Soon they’re inseparable, and the boys take it upon themselves to educate her into the world beyond her own. They hear rumors that Four Eyes (Wang Hongwei), the son of an intellectual, apparently taking to reeducation well, has a secret cache of western literature. It’s true, they steal it, and in nearby caves they read her Dostoevsky, Dumas, Flaubert and Balzac. How much doesn’t she know? What Paris is; what France is; where Europe is.
More, because they have a talent for storytelling, they are tasked with going into town, watching North Korean propaganda films at outdoor cinema, then reenacting the story for the villagers. One time, Luo retells them a Balzac story instead. He gets them to shout out the title. It’s amusing. Rather than being re-educated from western influences, he’s educating them in western literature. And it has its effects. The seamstress’ grandfather, the old tailor (Cong Zhijun), creates embroidered garments. We see the seamstress trying on the first bra in the village. The world is opening up.
Both boys fall in love with the little Chinese seamstress, of course, but she begins a relationship with the more handsome of the two, Luo, who, at one point, leaves for two months to attend to his sick father. (There is much more mobility during the Cultural Revolution than I realized.) It’s then that she reveals to Ma that she’s pregnant. We’re walked through a series of Mao-era Catch 22s: Abortions are legal but only with a marriage certificate; but you can only marry after age 25 and our protagonists are just 18. So Ma, the son of a doctor, convinces one of his father’s colleagues to perform the service. For his help, he gives him Balzac.
What changes her
I love the way the movie moves. It ambles like a lazy summer afternoon but the story coheres; in the end, the pathway is distinct. It leads Ma, our narrator, to Paris, where he makes his living as part of a string quartet, and where, one day in the late 1990s, he hears news of the Three Gorges Dam project, which will flood the Sichuan village where he once lived. So he returns, with camera, to film what’s there, and to look for the little Chinese seamstress, with whom he’s still in love. Some of the villagers recall her, or the old tailor, but that’s it. There’s no sign of her. Then Ma flies to Shanghai for a reunion with Luo, who’s a doctor, married, and with a child. Years earlier, in 1982, he too went looking for the Chinese seamstress to no avail. They drink, watch Ma’s video, reminisce.
Then we get a flashback to the day she left. She leaves early and the grandfather wakes the boys, who run in pursuit. They catch her on the stone path between the verdant, vertiginous Chinese mountains, his hair cut short, wearing tennis shoes. Ma hangs back while Luo talks. We get this exchange:
She: I decided I’m leaving.
He: What changed you?
In a way it’s more poignant than “Pygmalion.” Henry Higgins shows Eliza the world and she returns to him; the boys show the seamstress the world and she leaves them for it.
In the last part of the movie, this joint French-Chinese production, we see the video Ma took of the Sichuan village being flooded. The camera—Dai’s, not Ma’s—pans in, and we see the tailor’s old sewing machine, and the bottle of French perfume Ma brought for the little seamstress, being submerged. Underwater, the bottle twirls; it dances. Then, still underwater, we see a door open, and there are our protagonists as they were in the early ’70s: Ma playing violin while Luo reads Balzac to the little Chinese seamstress. The past isn’t buried, it’s submerged. It’s a final image so poignant as to be piercing.
Our man Edgar: patient at the plate and in life.
On Saturday the Seattle Mariners are finally retiring the number of Edgar Martinez, our beloved 3B/DH, now hitting coach, a future Hall of Famer and a .300/.400/.500 man who knew only one team: us. I've written about him many times. I've also urged the organization to do this very thing for years. There was no reason not to. We treated him shitty, he never left us, he left his mark in the record books. But the Mariners are the Mariners. They keep doing the wrong thing.
Tonight they'll finally get it right.
I was going to go to the game, bought tickets, 300-level behind homeplate, but life intervenes. But thoughts go out.
Edgar will be only the second Mariner to have his number retired (after Junior last year), and I'd encourage the team that never listens to someday retire a few others: #51 for both Ichiro and Randy, #34 for Felix, and maybe #19 for Jay Buhner. Others? Moyers' #50?
This is a relatively new phenomenon, by the way. Teams didn't put numbers on players' backs until 1929 (Indians, Yankees), and originally the number was the order in which they batted. That's why #3 for Babe Ruth, #4 for Lou Gehrig. It was to let the fans in the stands know who was who. Since lineups change often, it probably became too difficult to maintain this conceit and things morphed into what they are.
The first retired number was announced on July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig Day, Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth day, when, with Gehrig suddenly dying of the disease that would bear his name, the Yankees basically announced: “No one is fit to wear this uniform again.” For some reason, the New York Giants retired Carl Hubbel's #11 in 1944, and four years later, Babe Ruth's #3, which seven other Yankees wore after Ruth was cut from the team in '35, was retired on the silver anniversary of Yankee Stadium. A month later, the Giants' retired Mel Ott's #4.
In general, particularly in the early days, retired numbers were reserved for either great players (DiMaggio in '52) or men dying young (Fred Hutchinson of the Reds in '64, Jim Umbricht of the Astros in '65). Don't see much of the latter anymore.
The '70s were the decade when the phenomenon really took off:
- 1930s: 1
- 1940s: 3
- 1950s: 4
- 1960s: 8
- 1970s: 29
The last year when no numbers were retired? 1981. That awful strike-shortened, dual season year. The year I graduated high school.
This year, the following numbers have already been retired: #20 for the Indians (Frank Robinson), #34 for the Red Sox (David Ortiz), #56 for the White Sox (Mark Buehrle), and #2 for the Yankees (Derek Somethingorother). Now add Edgar. About time. He's been patient. He's been as patient with the Mariners as he was with every pitcher he ever saw.
The Curious Case of Cliff Mapes, the Greatest Numbers-Wearer in Baseball History
Cliff Mapes (third from left) flanked by three future Hall of Famers: DiMaggio, Mize and Berra.
If you're talking retired numbers in baseball, you have to talk about Cliff Mapes.
Now if you're a non-baseball fan, you're probably going: Cliff Who? And if you're a baseball fan, you're probably going: Wait. Cliff ... Who? But if you're a longtime baseball fan, steeped in its history and trivia, you're probably just nodding your head. You know where this is going. Although maybe not all of it.
From 1948 to 1952, Cliff Mapes was an outfielder for three teams in the American League: the New York Yankees, St. Louis Browns and Detroit Tigers. For his career, he appeared in 459 games, slugged 38 homeruns, and retired with the following BA/OBP/SLG line: .242/.338/.406. Right: Not exactly Hall of Fame stats. So if we're talking retired numbers, why do we have to talk about Cliff Mapes?
Because Mapes wore three of the most iconic retired numbers in baseball history.
A little history. MLB teams didn't begin wearing numbers on their backs until 1929, and back then the numbers correlated to their spot in the batting order. That's why, for the Yankees, Babe Ruth was No. 3 and Lou Gehrig No. 4. It was an easy way to let people in the stands know who was who. The Indians and Yankees were the first to do it and by 1937 every MLB team was doing it.
The first retired number belonged to the Yankees' Lou Gehrig, a beloved figure and the “Iron Man” of baseball, who died of a disease that now bears his name. In 1939, on Lou Gehrig Day, after he gave his “luckiest man” speech, the Yankees retired his #4. Essentially they were saying, “No one is fit to wear this uniform again.” Five years later, in 1944, the New York Giants retired Carl Hubbel's #11. Four years after that, on the 25th anniversary of Yankee Stadium, and as he was dying of cancer, the Yankees finally got around to retiring Ruth's #3.
Back then, numbers weren't quite as sacrosanct as they are now. Indeed, when the Yankees released Ruth in February 1935, they immediately gave it to the new right fielder George Selkirk, who wore it for seven years until he entered military service during WWII. Bud Metheny then wore it from 1943 to 1946, but he only last three games into the '46 seasons, so the number went to Eddie Bockman (who lasted four games), Roy Weatherly (two), and finally Frank Colman, a midseason pickup from the Pirates (five games).
By now the number should've been a jinx. Allie Clark took it on in '47 and played 24 games for the Yanks, then was traded to Cleveland in the off-season. That's how, in '48, it wound up on the back of Cliff Mapes, a rookie outfielder. But then the Yankee organization threw itself a party for the silver anniversary of its stadium, not to mention its first championship (they'd won 11 by then), where it planned to finally retire Ruth's number. Here's how big of a deal that wasn't. This is the report in the May 25, 1948 New York Times.
It's buried on pg. 34, lost amid the box scores. It got a bigger spread the day of (“Famous 'No. 3' to be Retired for All Time”) but we didn't get any highlights the next day. Nothing on Ruth's weakened state and cancer-ridden voice. Two months later, Ruth died.
But back to Mapes. To replace his No. 3, he—as A-Rod would do in the 21st century—just added a “1” and went with 13. The following year, maybe figuring that 13 was unlucky, he chose No. 7. Which he kept through the '51 season, by which time he was in a limited role, coming to the plate as a left-handed specialist. Then a few things happened. In early July, rookie Mickey Mantle, of whom such great things were expected that he had been given No. 6—signaling that the Yankees expected him to be next in line after Ruth (3), Gehrig (4), and DiMaggio (5)—was sent to the minors for seasoning. By the time Mantle returned in August, Mapes had been traded to St. Louis, and Mantle, figuring the No. 6 was a jinx for him, or put too much pressure on him, took Mapes' No. 7. Which he wore until the Yankees retired it on Mickey Mantle Day: June 8, 1969.
So that's why we talk about Mapes when we talk about retired numbers: When he died in 1996, the fact that he shared numbers with Ruth and Mantle was the primary focus of his two-paragraph New York Times obit. Almost nothing else was mentioned.
But you know what the Times inexplicably left off? Mapes wore the number of yet another Hall of Fame icon of baseball. In his last season in the Majors, with the Detroit Tigers, Mapes wore No. 5, which, throughout most of the '30s and '40s had been the number for the original “Hammerin' Hank,” Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg. What was his number still doing around in 1952? Well, the Tigers were late comers in the retiring-numbers biz. In fact, they were the 13th of the original 16 teams to retire a number—Al Kaline's No. 6 in 1980. By that point, the Yankees had retired nine numbers, the Dodgers six, and three expansion teams (Astros, Brewers, Mets) had gotten in the game. The Tigers didn't get around to retiring Greenberg's number (along with teammate Charlie Gehringer) until 1984—two years before his death at age 75.
So there you have it: Ruth, Greenberg, Mantle ... and Mapes.
Or is that it? As mentioned, Mapes' No. 13 was later worn by Alex Rodriguez, one of the greatest players of all time, if not exactly one of the most beloved of all time. A lot will have to be forgiven before the Yanks ever retire it, but it could happen. Meanwhile, the fifth number Mapes wore, No. 46 for the St. Louis Browns, who later became the Baltimore Orioles, was worn by popular O's pitcher Mike Flanagan.
I've looked for others that might've shared the number of more, or as many, baseball immortals, but no one comes close to Mapes. He's the Forrest Gump of baseball.
Quote for Donald Trump II
“The easiest thing to do with great power,” [Eisenhower] continued, “is to abuse it—to use it to excess.” The United States, he said, must not “grow weary of the processes of negotiation and adjustment that are fundamental to freedom” and slide into “coercion of other free nations.” To do so “would be a mark of the imperialist rather than of the leader.”
-- from pg. 99 of “Ike and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower's Secret Campaign against Joseph McCarthy” by David A. Nichols
Movie Review: Dunkirk (2017)
I’m glad it exists. I’m glad Christopher Nolan decided to cash in his considerable Dark Knight chips by making a World War II movie. But it’s not great. Sure, the sound; sure, the visuals; sure, the temporal dislocation. But the story? Who are these guys and why do we care?
I admit I was thrown off a bit by the time frame. We keep cutting between three groups of people in three different locations and with each we get a time frame:
- The Mole: A week
- The Sea: A day
- The Air: An hour
It took me most of the movie to realize, oh, that’s how long we were viewing each of their stories. We got a week’s worth of the story of Tommy (Fionn Whitehead, looking like Ewan McGregor’s younger brother), one of the soldiers surrounded by the German Army on the beach at Dunkirk, and trying to get home, across the English Channel, by any means necessary. We get a day’s worth of the story of Dawson (Mark Rylance), who, rather than let the British Navy commandeer his boat to rescue the boys, makes the journey himself, along with his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and teenage hand George (Barry Keoghan). And we get one hour of three RAF pilots, led by Farrier (Tom Hardy), who fly over and take on the Germans bombing the British troops on the beaches of Dunkirk.
Does it change much, knowing this beforehand? Are there subtle connections that you otherwise miss? That I otherwise missed?
Tommy is our protagonist at the first location but I kept losing track of him. That storyline keeps adding similarly sized, dark-haired boys in army fatigues: Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), first seen burying a comrade on the beach and possibly taking his boots; and Alex (Harry Styles), whom Tommy and Gibson save from being crushed by a sinking, listing ship along the mole/dock. At times, particularly during the action scenes, I couldn’t tell who was who. Is that the point? That one soldier blends into another? That they become interchangeable? But interchangeable also means replaceable. We care less about Tommy because Alex and Gibson are there.
For such a harrowing moment in history, their story almost becomes a comedy of errors. Tommy and Alex try to sneak onto a disembarking vessel by bringing a wounded man on board, but they’re ordered off. They hide on the mole, where they meet/help Alex. They manage to get aboard another boat, but that one, too, is sunk, and they return to the beach, which almost feels deserted, and hide aboard a grounded fishing boat, waiting for high tide. But first the boat’s Dutch owner arrives, and then Germans, who use the boat for target practice. As high tide arrives, the boat begins to sink, while Alex accuses the silent Gibson of being a spy. He’s not; he’s French. He goes down with that ship, I believe, while the others get aboard another, which is torpedoed. Is that the fourth ship he’s forced to abandon or the fifth? Either way, he, and I guess Alex, are eventually pulled onto Dawson’s boat and make their way across the channel.
While all of this has been going on, there’s been more tightly controlled drama aboard Dawson’s boat. In the middle of the channel, they rescue, off the hull of a downed ship, a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy), who doesn’t want to return to the battle, which is where Dawson’s ship is going. So Dawson lies to him and keeps going. But at one point he becomes violent, knocks George down the stairs into the cabin. At first he can’t see; then he’s dead. There’s a great moment, later, when the pilot asks after him, and Peter, anger in his eyes, is about to tell him off; then something like wisdom appears there, his father’s wisdom, and he lies. He tells him George is OK. It’s a gift he gives him; one less burden to carry.
Then they pull into Dunkirk and rescue Tommy, et al.
The drama in the third storyline is the drama of the gas gauge. Farrier keeps going even though the gas gauge reads low, then it’s knocked out so he can’t tell. Of the three planes, one is lost in an early dogfight, the second, piloted by Collins (Jack Lowden), is ditched in the channel after a second dogfight (Collins is rescued by Dawson’s boat). Farrier continues to France, shoots down more Germans, is hailed as a hero as he flies over the beaches of Dunkirk. Then back to the gas. Rather than ditch the plane, he lands it on the beaches, intact. “Won’t the Germans capture it?” I wondered. “Won’t that be dangerous?” Nope. He sets it afire, then surrenders to the Germans. Does he sit out the rest of the war? Does he survive five years as a POW? Who knows? We don’t even know who he really is.
We don’t know who any of them really are.
That’s the main problem I had. I’m not a fan of backstory but I wish I had something to distinguish these guys. Likes? Dislikes? Turn-ons? Of the three storylines, the most interesting was “The Sea,” because the drama there was at close quarters, involved moral dilemmas, and you had Mark Rylance aboard. I could watch him in almost anything. He’s got something like the wisdom of the world in his tone and on his face. He intrigues. Hardy does, too, in his inscrutability. The others? Not so much.
And the point of it all? Churchill hoped to evacuate 30,000 and they managed to evacuate 300,000. Except ... we don’t really see it here. By focusing so tightly on three stories, we don’t see the bigger picture.
It was a retreat that was courageous—that’s another point. Tommy and Alex return to England and guilt sets in; they feel the shame of losing. But then Tommy reads Churchill’s speech, “We shall fight on the beaches,” etc. from the local newspaper, and at train stations they’re hailed as heroes, and everyone feels better. Except ... In this movie, Dawson, Peter and George are certainly courageous, and so are the RAF pilots. But Tommy and Alex? They're just trying to do anything to get home. Which is certainly human, and involves courageous acts, but it’s not exactly full of the heroism and sacrifice of the others. Meaning the most important story in the movie felt the most ... pointless.
I’m glad “Dunkirk” was made, but I came away feeling oddly empty. I thought, like Peggy Lee, is that all there is? I longed for people smarter than Christopher Nolan making our movies.