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.