WARNING: The following review was written by a war movie lover for war movie lovers. General public, proceed at your own risk.
War movies come along rarely these days. Good war movies are even rarer. Ever since hearing about the upcoming “Dunkirk”, directed by none other than Christopher Nolan, I had circled the date on my calendar and eagerly awaited it. I became more eager as the trailers came out and the buzz ginned up. I had every reason to expect it to be an amazing movie. I waited to see it in an IMAX, as it was meant to be seen. I do not remember when I was more disappointed by a war movie. Perhaps “Gods and Generals”.
The historical event simply known as Dunkirk seems ripe for screen treatment. The bad guys win, but the good guys survive daunting odds in a miraculous evacuation aided by plucky civilians. Sacrifices abound. Throw in historical controversy. And it had something for every military nut – air battles, ground combat, and naval activities. In 1958, the movie “Dunkirk” tried to tell the story by concentrating on a squad and two civilian boaters and including the bigger picture. Chris Nolan decided it was high time to revisit the event. But he decided to throw out the big picture ("Operation Dynamo" is not mentioned in the movie) and add the air leg of the tripod. His movie would be more personal and immerse you in the experience. It should have been a great companion to the original. Somehow he misfired, as far as I am concerned.
Being a modern director, Nolan could not just use a traditional narrative approach. The movie is like a triptych consisting of a land, sea, and air component. The three story arcs are interweaved in a nonlinear structure. The movie drops us straight outside the Dunkirk perimeter with a vague title card that reminds historically literate viewers what the situation was in 1940 – Germany was kicking British and French butt. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is in a group of “odds and sods” (a term for soldiers cut off from their units) that are making their way to the Dunkirk perimeter. For those of you, like me, who think that Nolan has adopted the “lost patrol, who will survive?” structure from the 1958 movie, think again. Tommy’s crew are not going to be whittled down slowly. Tommy, who is one of the “heroes” of the movie, pals up with a supposed Brit named Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and they try to cut the line to get on a ship leaving the mole. The mole is a pier supervised by Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) where ships pull up alongside and load up with soldiers. Keep in mind, Tommy has just arrived and these other guys have been waiting hours (days?) in orderly fashion to be saved. I have to admit my view of Tommy was colored by my view of every line cutter I have encountered. From this point on, I did not really care if Tommy lived. I did feel sorry to any shipmates of his, however. Because every ship Tommy got on was doomed to be sunk. This is not a “who will survive?” movie, it is a “what will survive?” movie. Answer: one little boat.
The second panel of the triptych is Mr. Gibson (Mark Rylance) in his yacht coming across the Channel to help pick up soldiers. On the way, he rescues a shipwrecked soldier (Gillian Murphy) who is less than thrilled with the prospect of returning to Dunkirk. He is on board to provide dramatic tension. Have you ever been on an hours long yacht ride? Have you watched one? The voyage will be intertwined with the third story line - that of an RAF pilot named Farrier (Tom Hardy). Farrier will provide the dogfight portion of the film. The air combat is shown out of sequence so Nolan can earn his auteur merit badge.
The effort put into “Dunkirk” is commendable. Nolan, who made his fame in action films like “The Dark Knight”, decided to avoid directorial stereotyping. He eschewed CGI in favor of “practical effects”. Sixty authentic ships and boats were used, including twelve of the original “Little Ships”. Three Spitfires were available and a Yak-25TW was rigged to look like a Spitfire. The Yak is a two-seater that allowed for shots over Hardy’s shoulder and for an actual pilot to fly the plane. The one Me-109 was portrayed by a Spanish HA-1112 Buchon. The thousands of extras were supplemented by cardboard cut-outs of soldiers and vehicles. Unfortunately, it is sometimes hard to tell the real actors from the cardboards. The cast is eclectic. It has some heavyweights like Branagh, Hardy, and Rylance, but the rest are future star wannabes. The biggest buzz brewed up around pop heartthrob Harry Styles as one of Tommy’s sink-baits. Nolan was not familiar with his fame when he was cast, that makes two of us. Hardy spends the whole movie with his face covered. In other words, it’s a Tom Hardy movie. He doesn’t get to say much, which is better than mouthing platitudes like Branagh. “I’d rather fight waves than dive bombers.” That’s pretty much a speech for this movie. The dialogue is sparse. Nolan lets the scenarios do the talking. The interweaving of the stories is intriguing and you definitely are encouraged to pay attention. (Someone should do a study on the average amount of time it takes a viewer to realize the movie is nonlinear.) I can imagine there are some baby boomers who will be a little confused by the plot. Which plane is Farrier shooting down now? The movie can be mesmerizing in its cinematography. Nolan shot it in 70 mm and on an IMAX screen the details are amazing. The air action is especially noteworthy (although the dogfights are not the best ever), but the movie also has some visceral sinking scenes. Those of you who want to see Harry Styles drown will enjoy this film.
So, what’s not to like? Not much, if you are a regular movie fan. Lots, if you are a war movie buff. I am aware that Nolan was making a fictional tale. He purposely did not have any real characters in the film. But he also stated that he would take a documentary approach to the story. He interviewed numerous veterans of Dunkirk. (Most complimented the film, but commented that it was too noisy. And kids should stay off their lawns.) Their personal stories are reflected in the experiences of the characters in the movie. For instance, at one point a soldier wades into the surf to fatalistically swim back to England. I have no problem with a movie about a famous historical event that downplays tutoring in favor of entertainment. But I do take umbrage when the movie confuses the facts and blows the opportunity to use an historical setting to tell a rousing tale. The best way to describe “Dunkirk” is to say that Nolan has set his tale in Dunkirk and seasoned it with some references to the actual event, but he cared little about bringing the battle to life. His decision to leave the bigger picture out forfeited a lot of the suspense inherent in the event. You wonder what will happen to Tommy and the others, but you do not feel for the army and the nation. The movie is only 107 minutes long so it’s not like Nolan decided to leave Churchill and the brass on the cutting room floor because of time constraints. A historical epic that is less than two hours? Hell, “Dunkirk” (1958) is 134 minutes! Speaking of which, you may be shocked to learn that the old movie is better than the new. It was able to show the micro and the macro. Binn (John Mills) made a much more interesting central character than Tommy. And it has a much more interesting take on the civilian rescuers. It has no RAF, but it does cover the other two branches better. As far as a history lesson, there is no comparison. If you want to learn what happened at Dunkirk and you don’t care who Harry Styles is, the 1958 movie is the better bet.
“Dunkirk” is a classic example of how low a bar historical movies have these days. It is being commended for its accuracy and it is above average. However, there are still moments that should make history buffs cringe. (Especially if you have read two books about the event recently.) The decision to forego special effects deprives the movie of the chaos and destruction that it needs to reflect the desperate nature of the trap the British were in. Shots of Dunkirk (where the location shooting occurred) do not show the results of the relentless Luftwaffe bombing. The use of the mole is sanitized and simplified. Events there are supposed to take place over a seven day period, but they appear to be close to the end of the evacuation. This causes some problems. Barton mentions the seemingly unattainable goal of rescuing 30,000 men when in reality they would have been well past that figure. He also laments the withdrawal of destroyers from the effort when at this point that decision had been reversed. The French soldiers are evacuated after all the British were gone, when in actuality they were being jointly evacuated midway through. At this stage, the evacuation during the daytime would have been suspended in favor of night only. As far as the beach scenes, there should have been more men waiting on the beach. And a lot more debris. And there should have been more action by the little boats to pick them up and deliver them to off shore ships. Through the Gibson character, the movie implies the little boats brought the men back to England with them. Some did - on their last trip of the day. The movie makes it seem that the little boats were sent in only at the end to finish the job. The cavalry riding to the rescue. They were actually involved much earlier. Gibson would not have made only one trip. And he would not have snuck away to avoid having his boat commandeered by the Royal Navy. If a boat owner wanted to sail the boat himself, he could. But the biggest flaws are in the showy dog fights. The three-plane formation that Farrier is in is tactically sound, but they would not have approached the port at a low altitude. If they were bounced by a German fighter, he would have had to have brass balls to tangle with the three of them. Normally, I would not lament the lack of CGI, but in this case it could have been used effectively. As far as Farrier shooting down a Stuka while gliding… By the way, that was his fourth kill of the sortie!
Some critics have gone as far as calling “Dunkirk” a great war movie. One even called it the greatest. Having seen a fair amount of war movies, I can tell you it is very overrated. I do not even think it is in the top 100. I’m not saying it is a bad movie, I’m saying it does not live up to the hype and is not even as good as the 1958 version. It was a missed opportunity.
GRADE = C