Dunkirk

August 9, 2017 by  
Filed under Movies

In the spring of 1940, well before the US joined the allied forces in WWII, things looked pretty grim for Europe. Germany had taken Poland, and had advanced into France, while England became a sitting duck. German forces pushed English and France armies to the brink, bringing them to the shores of Dunkirk, a beach along the coast of France. Christopher Nolan’s noble “Dunkirk” attempts to retell the evacuation attempt and rescue on that beach; for the most part, he achieves something unique: a war movie without a central narrative. It’s somewhat disjointed–which is on purpose–but that does bog down the dramatic elements of the film.

It’s split into three parts: The Mole (beach), which takes place over a week; The Air, which takes place over one hour; and, The Sea, which takes place over a day. Each parts, to me, represent three elements of the body: the head (The Mole), the heart (The Sea), and the muscle (The Air). Most of the sequences in the air are tightly shot, with dogfighting between Spitfires being the primary focus. There are some outside shots illustrating the scope of the fight; but mostly, we’re drawn right into one-on-one battles.

On the Mole, we’re introduced to two main characters: Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and “Gibson” (Aneurin Barnard). Tommy is the sole survivor of his unit after being attacked by the Germans (who are never shown onscreen), in the town. He escapes and makes it onto the beach, encountering Gibson burying someone. Instead of having a conversation about it, they’re immediately whisked away to wounded as Germans keep bombarding the beach. They carry a stretcher to a boat with wounded, but are only just about to make it, after being turned away by officials. As stowaways, they are safe–until the ship is leveled and everyone is poured out into the water, and forced back to the beach.

The Sea features probably the strongest story in the film. A father, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), take their private yacht to Dunkirk to aid the evacuation. This was part of a huge project urged by Winston Churchill (also never shown onscreen), that civilians take part in aiding the stranded soldiers back to England. But Dawson, instead of having the Navy support him, takes his boat for himself to head his own rescue. George (Barry Keoghan), their teenage assistant, comes along. On their way, they pick up a wounded soldier who survived a U-Boat attack (Cillian Murphy). The soldier is shell shocked and extremely tense, insistent that he doesn’t want to go back to Dunkirk. Dawson continues on, to the dismay of the soldier, who winds up accidentally pushing George down and hurting him badly. The yacht eventually picks up a pack of soldiers either from downed planes or destroyed ships, and attempts to bring them back.

The Air has the most action, and as said above, tightly executed so it comes off very realistically and intense. Farrier (Tom Hardy) is the main focus as far as the characters, and seems to be the most accomplished fighter pilot. His mission is to stave off German fighters from attacking the ships trying to leave Dunkirk. His heroics are certainly some of the strongest of the film–and provides some of the much needed drama that’s lacking elsewhere.

That would be The Mole. While there certainly is plenty of ground to cover dramatically, we don’t get a real sense of intimacy from the characters. They’re just faces and mouths shouting at each other. Tommy is quiet, Gibson speechless; but another character, Alex (Harry Styles), barks and distrusts both of them as they all try to escape the beach in ill-fated attempts. Alex accuses Gibson of being a German spy since he won’t talk, and thinks Tommy is a traitor. But none of that really goes anywhere, and seems to be a waste of screen time. The other central figure on the beach is Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), who mostly paces around hoping for a miracle to happen. Branagh has the easiest part to play here, as the stoic commander just whispering “home” and watching as the ships come in.

The Mole represents “the head”, because it comes off as the more intellectual story. Trying to show these soldiers as literal rodents scampering and desperately surviving can be a useful metaphor; though, it’s not a full on allegory. But it has the most use of dialogue, even though there is a lot of silence among characters as well. But it falls flat as a narrative, since it really lacks a main character arc. The sea is the heart because the story of Dawson and his son, and mate George, is the most moving. And, seeing all of these ships from civilians come onto the beaches of Dunkirk to rescue their countrymen, is very powerful. I think the entire film could’ve revolved around this and been a stronger film. The air, of course, is where most of the best action comes from. The muscle, literally keeping this film in motion. Hardy is always reliable as an actor; and he pulls off Farrier extremely well.

The weaknesses of the film don’t outweigh the potency of its story and purpose; but, it could have been a much stronger picture. I think Nolan sometimes lingers on the pretentious, thinking he can do better than sentimentality–which is fine, except you need to fill that with something meaningful. “Dunkirk” suffers a bit from having too little emotional empathy at times. Besides that, some of the questionable music cues weigh down the film’s authority as well. In the air, I felt there was no soundtrack necessary. Just the whizzing and pops of the bullets, mixed with the whaling of the fighters, was enough. That part of the film is so raw anyway, that music was a distraction.

“Dunkirk” does succeed in telling a good story about faith and hope; it’s not the strongest WWII movie by any means, but it does serve its purpose telling a unique story. I think Nolan could have simplified the story–or, told it in either a trilogy of films or a miniseries of some kind. That would have given it more time to breathe, rather than constantly leave us breathless.

It’s still going to make you feel overwhelmed when you see those ships come to shore, however, and watch these brave soldiers come “home”.

My rating: :-)