Whenever a historically themed movie is about to come out, I am usually excited. The excitement is amplified when it deals with warfare. The old stand-by is World War II, and there are some excellent films about the events between 1939 and 1945 (let us remember that the war began before the United States entered in late 1941). Hence, my interest was piqued when it was announced there would be a new production of Dunkirk (2017), focusing on the dramatic evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from mainland Europe before it could be completely destroyed by the German blitzkrieg. If you know anything about the veritable miraculousness of this event, you will have probably expected, as I did, a quality cinematic experience. What gave me pause was the fact that it was being directed by Christopher “Time is Meaningless” Nolan. I made that nickname up, by the way. Still, I am the kind of guy who will, in most cases, give people about which I have doubts a chance to prove me wrong. I wish I could say this was the result of my viewing.
Dunkirk begins in a standard enough way, with Tommy Jensen (Fionn Whitehead) and his compatriots walking through the streets of the eponymous town. What is left of the French army is holding the line on the outskirts, while roughly 300,000 British soldiers wait on the nearby beaches hoping for rescue. This is the main setting. Unfortunately, Nolan decides to do one of the things that annoys the crap out of this reviewer: he tells the story from a non-linear perspective. One moment you are seeing Tommy running from the town, onto the beach, and eventually making his way to the Mole (basically a pier where ships will eventually dock), while periodically dodging strafing and bombing runs from the Luftwaffe’s Junker Ju.87 dive bombers. On the mole, attempting to organize the chaos is Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh). Yet, as you are getting into this, the film jumps to another part of the story, at a different time of the day and location on the battlefield. In fact, we next go to a completely different country, the English coast on the other side of the Channel, where any boats the government can get their hands on are being organized to send to help their trapped comrades on the mainland. The one we focus on belongs to Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), who is able to convince the authorities to let him go alone instead of allowing it to be commandeered by the Royal Navy. Along their journey across the Channel, they pass a sunken British warship. They pull from the water one soldier (Cillian Murphy) who had made it off the beach, and cannot believe they he would be headed back. The other jump is to the skies overhead as the paltry number of British Spitfire fighter planes they could send to aid the army are led by Farrier (Tom Hardy). He and his wingman Collins (Jack Lowden) are all the aircover the soldiers on the ground, and the boats in the water, are able to receive (apparently) during the operation, codenamed Dynamo. I will talk more about this later, but I will simply mention here that these are three distinct aspects of the story, and their plots barely intersect. Furthermore, they take place over different periods of time. The mole is a week, Mr. Dawson’s adventures are one day, and the battle in the skies is one hour. It alerts the viewer to these changes with subtitles, though it took me a minute to catch on to how they were telling the story. I was perplexed before I understood, and my realization did nothing to ease my ire. Anyway, on with the upshot of it all. On the mole, Tommy eventually makes it onto a ship docked there before the pier is blown up, but the ship is sunk by a German Stuka. Swimming back to shore, he takes refuge in another boat along with a few others attempting to stay clear of the shelling, but it is close to German lines and draws fire. It eventually goes to sea with the tide, but sinks. When it does, Tommy is picked up by a British minesweeper, but it, too, is attacked and destroyed. It is at this point that he is picked up by Mr. Dawson’s boat. In getting to where Tommy is found, Mr. Dawson had fished a number of other men out of the channel. In the process, a young man named George Mills (Barry Keoghan), who had begged Mr. Dawson to come along, had taken a vicious blow to the head when the first soldier tried to turn the boat back around to head to England, later dying of the wound. What saves Mr. Dawson and the rest is Farrier’s heroics. He shoots down a number of German bombers before his Spitfire runs out of fuel, forcing him to land on the beach. There, he burns his fighter before being captured by the Germans. Meanwhile, Mr. Dawson gets back to England with the rest to of the flotilla, and finds a grateful nation. This is basically where the movie ends.
You can probably sense from my description in the last paragraph that my main criticism of Dunkirk involves the way the story is told. As I said, it took me a little while to realize I was watching a non-linear plot. It became exasperating when one moment it is day time, and then the next it is night. Some are okay with this style, but I am not among them. However, this is not my biggest problem with the film. Instead, my largest criticism is how the feel is all wrong. If you knew nothing else about the BEF, you would have thought from watching this film that it was little more than a couple hundred thousand soldiers sent to take on the Germans rather than a modern army. What is missing, particularly from the scenes on the beaches, are the masses of hulks of broken-down tanks and trucks that were also sent to the mainland because, you know, they had them. Instead, you get nice, clean lines of troops waiting to board the rag-tag group of boats sent to rescue them. You do see some vehicles because the ones they could move they made into improvised moles so that ships with deeper drafts could pick up those on the sand without running aground. It was not nearly enough, though, in terms of equipment. As a historian, I notice these things, and it takes me out of the picture. When added to the way the story is told, it becomes a complete disaster, which does not match with the real-life event.
One of the reasons we are drawn to a movie like Dunkirk, even if you are not a history nerd like me, is for the human drama. The BEF had essentially turned into a mob of 300,000 men with little direction other than saving their necks. When a ship is about to sink, one of the common phrases you hear is “every man for themselves.” A ship at sea is not the safest place, and the captain of any vessel exercises near god-like control over its function in order to avoid danger as much as possible. When that all breaks down, it is up to each individual to do what they can to survive. This is the situation for the BEF, and you see it told most poignantly through Tommy’s eyes. In these moments, people forget their Christian duty to one another, and are willing to do the most awful things to one another to save themselves. It is also difficult to blame anyone for behaving in this manner because until we are faced with the same set of circumstances, we have no genuine idea as to how we will react. It is because of this that the examples of heroism in the film are what make it at least somewhat approaching watchable. God does not demand of us that we sacrifice ourselves for others, but neither should we hesitate to do so. It is because of this that if I had to choose a favorite character, it would be Farrier. The others all do a number of things that make me squeamish, but Farrier fights until the end. He could have turned his Spitfire back to England when he saw his fuel running low. Yet, doing so would have taken away what little aircover already existed. It meant that he had to eventually face capture, but it allowed many more to escape. There is a special blessing for people willing to perform such actions.
There are other cinematic versions of Dunkirk. The most recent one is the only I have seen in its entirety. What I have viewed of the others makes me think that they are better representations of an event that helped turn the tide of World War II, or at least ensured England’s survival. I believe that in a different director’s hands, this would have been a better film. True Nolan fans might appreciate it. As for the rest of us, skip it.