erik lundegaard

Monday August 07, 2017

Movie Review: Dunkirk (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Iím glad it exists. Iím glad Christopher Nolan decided to cash in his considerable Dark Knight chips by making a World War II movie. But itís 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, thatís how long we were viewing each of their stories. We got a weekís worth of the story of Tommy (Fionn Whitehead, looking like Ewan McGregorís 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 dayís 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? Dunkirk movie reviewAre there subtle connections that you otherwise miss? That I otherwise missed?

Three stories
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 couldnít 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 theyíre 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 boatís 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. Heís not; heís French. He goes down with that ship, I believe, while the others get aboard another, which is torpedoed. Is that the fourth ship heís forced to abandon or the fifth? Either way, he, and I guess Alex, are eventually pulled onto Dawsonís boat and make their way across the channel.

While all of this has been going on, thereís been more tightly controlled drama aboard Dawsonís boat. In the middle of the channel, they rescue, off the hull of a downed ship, a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy), who doesnít want to return to the battle, which is where Dawsonís 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 canít see; then heís dead. Thereís 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 fatherís wisdom, and he lies. He tells him George is OK. Itís 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 itís knocked out so he canít 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 Dawsonís 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. ďWonít the Germans capture it?Ē I wondered. ďWonít that be dangerous?Ē 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 donít even know who he really is.

We donít know who any of them really are.

Oddly empty†
Thatís the main problem I had. Iím 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 ďThe Sea,Ē because the drama there was at close quarters, involved moral dilemmas, and you had Mark Rylance aboard. I could watch him in almost anything. Heís 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 donít really see it here. By focusing so tightly on three stories, we donít see the bigger picture.

It was a retreat that was courageousóthatís another point. Tommy and Alex return to England and guilt sets in; they feel the shame of losing. But then Tommy reads Churchillís speech, ďWe shall fight on the beaches,Ē etc. from the local newspaper, and at train stations theyíre 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 itís not exactly full of the heroism and sacrifice of the others. Meaning the most important story in the movie felt the most ... pointless.

Iím glad ďDunkirkĒ 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.

Posted at 06:27 AM on Monday August 07, 2017 in category Movie Reviews - 2017  
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