The early buzz about Dunkirk has been strong. Long before the movie’s release, its Twitter account started garnering followers. Comparisons abound to Saving Private Ryan, the Steven Spielberg film, and the Spielberg-produced series Band of Brothers. Dunkirk is supposed to be one of the great movies of the summer; a Christopher Nolan masterpiece based on a slice of heroic reality during World War II.
But when a friend and I walked out of an early IMAX screening the other day, we both wondered how we were feeling about it. We were moved and bothered. We knew Nolan paid homage — much-deserved — to the veterans who attended the film’s premiere in London last week. But was it great?
There’s no doubt that Nolan has masterfully captured the violence and fear and dread of war. This is an achievement for a filmmaker who was specialized in fiction and science fiction — he made strong works such as Mememto and Interstellar as well as watchable superhero movies. Identifying with the terrifying loneliness of young soldiers facing death in foreign lands will be a little easier after seeing this film. In that sense Nolan can compete with Mel Gibson, who showed similar horrors last year in the criminally overlooked war drama Hacksaw Ridge.
Dunkirk is set in 1940 on the beach by the French town with that name. When the British speak of the Dunkirk Spirit they refer to the astonishing rescue of more than 330,000 Allied troops who were surrounded, essentially trapped there by German forces early in the war, which is the episode the film delves into.
The North Sea waters were too shallow for British destroyers to reach the beach. Ingeniously, the military called on civilian boat owners to cross the English Channel and come to the rescue. Hundreds of them heeded the call. Under fire from the Luftwaffe as well as invisible U-boats they formed a ragtag flotilla and made it to the seaside, saving thousands of soldiers. It was a powerful action indicating to British citizens and German generals alike that Britain would not surrender. The outcome of the war might have been different had this unusual rescue operation not worked out.
Nolan, who wrote the screenplay himself, shows three perspectives inside this operation. On the beach we follow a week in the life of a couple of soldiers, school boys really, as they try to find a way out. They fool guards, sneak onto boats, survive torpedo attacks, swim through burning oil, face German bullets. The wonderful actors Nolan chose for this part are mostly unknown. He has said that he wanted to emulate the youth and lack of experience of the soldiers themselves, and he has succeeded.
In the air we witness for just an hour a lone fighter pilot make his way east across the Channel. This is another terrific role of Tom Hardy — and once again the actor gets to wear a face mask during most of his screen time. He, too, dodges Nazi attacks and other challenges before coming to the aid of the trapped and the dying.
Their experiences are as harrowing as they are brave. But I was most moved by the commoners in one particular boat. As quiet as many of that generation, the sublime actor Mark Rylance plays Mr. Dawson, who brings his son and a friend of his son to offer help. Their one-day trip on a small fishing boat turns brutal before they even reach French waters. The quiet courage of these men made me long for a different time: the era when being a gentleman meant knowing manners, helping others, and following a crystal clear moral code that combined selflessness with inner-strength.
Nolan is known for his love of old-school film. He dislikes digital. So he shot the movie on three different kinds of film, a rarity nowadays, to achieve maximum quality. Watching Dunkirk in a theater with IMAX and a film projector will be the best way to see it, an overwhelming experience to anyone with a heart.
But Dunkirk is missing something. To be blunt: it’s missing a story line. As a writer and director Nolan offers only fragments. There is more than one great film hiding in Dunkirk, but in a way this is a postmodern work about a modern war, lacking a narrative we want —need — to follow. Lacking, too, is a character to understand, know and care about. It was a disorienting experience to witness the intimate barbarity of war and the uplifting heroism of the Brits, without ever feeling much.
One of the reasons I loved Hacksaw Ridge was the profound connection Gibson managed to build between the neutral viewer and the deeply Christian, lovely, odd character Desmond Doss: the pacifist war hero. Regardless of our own background we had little choice but to crawl inside his life and inside his mind as Gibson took us there. The great Spielberg, too, weaved meticulous stories with compelling characters, leaving the viewer excited and exhausted after his war films. But ask me what the frightened soldiers and brave rescuers in Nolan’s movie were thinking and feeling, or why they did what they did, and I don’t necessarily know — or care. Of course we root for them, but we do not understand them deeply.
It can’t have been the director’s goal to have us stay detached. And it’s too bad. The characters in Dunkirk are the sort of men we would all benefit from truly knowing. More so during our time, when moral equivalence seems to have eclipsed the sort of moral character on display in this movie.