“Dunkirk” Disappoints

A guest post from Brian Watt of Ricochet.com

Yes, there are spoilers herein. If you are planning to see Dunkirk at a theater near you and don’t want to read about how the new Christopher Nolan film treats this historical event then you may be excused. Here’s a trailer of the film below that should serve as a visual break in this Ricochet post before the review begins.

Let me begin by articulating that I am an admirer of Nolan’s work. He breathed new life into the Batman stories and made something that had been targeted previously primarily to adolescent boys something that adults could find entertaining and at times thought provoking, exploring such themes as chaos, evil and nihilism. With Interstellar, he and his screenwriting brother, took the time to explore the actual science of the astrophysics that the film relies upon with renowned physicist Kip Thorne, so it would have an air of authenticity and highly-probable believability (well, the ending was a stretch). If only Ridley Scott had applied Nolan’s same discipline and attention to detail to the laughably unscientific, Prometheus.

So, given Nolan’s disciplinary attention to detail, I was expecting the same treatment for Dunkirk, based on the failed joint British and French operation that sought to repel the blitzkrieg invasion of France by Hitler’s forces at the outset of World War II that left hundreds of thousands of British, Polish, Belgian and French forces stranded in the streets and on the beaches of Dunkirk. Unfortunately, Nolan made a conscious decision not to get all political with the subject matter of this historical event. He is reported to have said that he wanted to make the story more “universal”. Apparently, historical accuracy is not a universal construct.

Unfortunately, by stripping out all of the historical context surrounding the retreat to and evacuation of Dunkirk, the viewer is left grasping for more information. The German army is never shown on screen except for some dark silhouetted figures who surround Tom Hardy, a British Spitfire pilot on the beach at the end of the film. The German enemy is just some dark, malevolent force just on the other side of a beach dune or represented by occasional dive bombing Heinkels and Stukas. Dunkirk could be just one other episode in any war at any time in history which is perhaps Nolan’s aim but that sort of watering down of a very complex battle and evacuation that was engaged in and carried out on a grand scale does a disservice to history and pays little homage to those who were involved in it.

Yes, they are some visually stunning scenes throughout the film. The dogfights between the RAF and the Luftwaffe pilots are shot in such a way as to put the viewer in the cockpit spinning, banking, climbing, diving and even ditching in the English Channel. But the cinematography alone isn’t enough to save this film.

As of this writing, The London Times is reporting that the French are incensed about the film because it completely dismisses their contribution to hold the German army at bay so some 300,000 soldiers could be evacuated. What the Nolan film conveys is the desperation and anxiety of the British soldiers on the beach and their vulnerability even when they believe they’ve become safer when aboard a transport vessel en route for home.

June 4, 1940 Some of the last troops to be evacuated crowd aboard two civilian boats. IMAGE: AP

What the film more ineptly conveys is the size of the civilian flotilla of British pleasure craft and fishing vessels that made the treacherous trip across the Channel and risked their own lives to evacuate the stranded army. To represent the massive flotilla, Nolan has us follow the exploits of just one boat and its crew. When the British boats are finally spotted by a British Naval officer played by Kenneth Branagh from his perch on a Dunkirk pier, Nolan, who prefers not to resort to CGI, relying instead more often on actual scenery, extras, and equipment, shows the audience perhaps about twenty small vessels. The actual number of vessels deployed to evacuate the British, Polish, French and Belgian troops numbered about 861 of which some 243 vessels were sunk. Does Nolan’s film portray the scale of that? No.

Wikipedia tells us that:

The historian Basil Liddell Hart says British Fighter Command lost 106 aircraft dogfighting over Dunkirk, the Luftwaffe lost about 135 – some of which were shot down by the French Navy and the Royal Navy; but MacDonald says the British lost 177 aircraft and the Germans lost 240

Do we get a sense of the number of aircraft attacking one another over the Channel and Dunkirk more specifically? No. Nolan appears to have made the decision that this wasn’t important. His film is more of an intimate portrayal of a few select personalities either fighting to survive or fighting so that others would survive. But one has to question whether that decision was truly an artistic one or one made for budgetary constraints or whether Nolan felt that being more historically accurate would just be too much of a bother.

Nolan’s Dunkirk strips away any necessary historical context, so we have no idea of the fight the French and Belgian forces were engaged in, the attitudes, frustrations or desires of the German high command, the sense of commitment from hundreds of British civilians who owned pleasure craft or fishing vessels who embarked on the evacuation mission and the toll that that took on themselves when they were attacked and their loved ones, some of whom never saw their husbands or sons again.

At the end of the film there is no explanatory note of how many ships, aircraft sailors or soldiers were lost. There is no mention of Polish or Belgian troops. No mention of German troops. What the fallout of the event was in Britain or in France after it ended. There are no explanatory notes at all. What Nolan has made is a visual slice of life and death war picture that chooses not to show the scale of the conflict, so we are left with a movie showing a mere fraction of what occurred.

Nolan chose two of Britain’s more accomplished actors, Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy, to play key roles in the film but their talents are wasted. Branagh’s naval officer somberly speaks only a few lines, looks concerned a lot and is often shown staring out to sea with mouth agape in close-up to the point that the viewer begins to fixate on the moles on his face. Hardy, a Spitfire pilot is most often shown in close up with his oxygen mask over his face, even less of his body shown than in The Dark Knight Rises when he also wore a mask throughout, so what Nolan and the other producers of the film really paid for were Hardy’s eyes. Nice gig if you can get it. One wonders if his eyes had a stand-in. The parody videos of Hardy’s generic Spitfire pilot spouting lines from The Dark Knight Rises as Bane are sure to surface on YouTube and Vimeo soon. Again, since these fine actors were underutilized, one wonders if their casting was more of financial play to draw in more box office. If either are considered for any awards for these roles it will be a sham.

These two roles and all the other roles from the other actors shown, make the viewer wonder whether these are truly meant to represent actual figures during the battle and evacuation or whether, like an Obama autobiography, they are amalgams of personalities. We must assume the latter, since again, there are no explanatory notes at the end of the film about any of them. Of course, actual individuals aren’t as universal as amalgams representing a collective of personalities. And it’s more important apparently to be universal than be specific.

Shall we consider Nolan’s Dunkirk a post-modern, collectivist, sanitized, apolitical, ahistorical treatment of what actually happened at Dunkirk? It’s difficult to see how this reviewer can consider it otherwise. Pretty to look at though.

[This post originally appeared in the members only section of Ricochet.com. It has been posted here with  permission from the author, Brian Watt.]

  • David_Kent

    Well said. I was terribly disappointed in this movie on so many levels.