I first heard of Dunkirk almost a year ago. Almost instantly, it became my most-anticipated movie of 2017. The combination of material – one of the most dramatic moments of WWII – combined with the director – Christopher Nolan – had me waiting anxiously.
Having moved to a small town on the Washington coast last year, where good quality movie theaters are a distant memory, Dawn and I have stopped going to movies, for the most part. There was a time when we saw three or four movies a month, especially in the prime movie seasons of summer and the holidays. Seeing Dunkirk was only our third movie out in 2017.
I approach my movie reviews in two ways: Did I like it, and, will you like it? Just because I love or hate a movie doesn’t mean you will feel the same. Dawn and I have similar tastes in movies, but she still doesn’t care for my favorite good-time movie, That Thing You Do! I love her in spite of this. Another example is No Country For Old Men. It is one of my all-time favorite movies, but I hesitate to recommend it to people because it is so violent and dark.
For Dunkirk, my answers are, I absolutely loved it, but I’m not sure I will recommend it to people willy-nilly. Dawn said she hated it, but she said it in the grudging way that told me that she was impacted by the movie, but didn’t like the way it impacted her. If it was simply a bad movie, like, say, San Andreas, then you don’t hate it for scaring the daylights out of you, you hate it because the dialogue apparently was written by third graders.
Here’s the basic story line of Dunkirk: It is based on the true story of the attempted evacuations of hundreds of thousands of Allied troops from Dunkirk Beach in France. Beaten back by the strength of the Axis forces, the Allied troops had run out of room to retreat, and wanted more than anything to cross the 50 miles or so of ocean to get to England. As it was, the hundreds of thousands of men were sitting ducks, subject to any number of different Axis attacks. Germany didn’t even need to risk men or tanks in killing them, they could just run attack after attack of dive bombers, killing thousands of Allied soldiers at very little risk.
Christopher Nolan is one of my five favorite directors, but he sometimes has difficulty with things like characterization and dialogue, in my opinion. To address this in Dunkirk, he simply removes those two elements from this movie. Think of any war movie you love – Saving Private Ryan, for instance. You really get to know the soldiers who are sent on the mission to retrieve Pvt. Ryan. You know who they are, what their dreams are if they survive, what kind of person they are. There are many scenes of dialogue between the soldiers as they proceed on their mission. There is none of that in Dunkirk.
Dawn described Dunkirk as “The opening scene in Saving Private Ryan, stretched out over the entire movie.” That’s a pretty good description. There is no “main character” or protagonist. We do see the same actors in various scenes throughout the movie, but aside from judging them by their actions on Dunkirk Beach, we know virtually nothing about them.
There are great performances, but they were built primarily on what we already knew about the actors going into the movie. Mark Rylance was brilliant as one of the British citizens who risked his life to cross the channel to reach the soldiers, and I hope he gets another Academy Award nomination here. Tom Hardy was the closest thing to a hero in the movie, as he played an RAF fighter, his face once again covered by a mask for most of the film, just as it was when he played Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. To me, the most iconic moment in the movie was his final scene, as he walks away from his plane.
It is a complex, challenging movie, and Nolan doesn’t hold the audience’s hand. Aside from three quick graphics at the very beginning of the film, identifying the three strands of story he will be following, he leaves the audience to find its own way. By the way, the film refers a number of times to a “mole,” which in this case, doesn’t mean a small digging animal or a spy, but a concrete pier that runs out to deep water so the men can be boarded onto larger ships and taken home.
The bottom line is, if you’re interested in a visual representation of what it might have been like on Dunkirk Beach in 1940, I think you will love it as much as I did. If you want a more typical war narrative, with an identifiable hero to root for and victorious happy ending, or if you have any fear of drowning, I don’t think this movie is for you. Dawn watched most of it from between her fingers, often moaning, “Oh no, oh no,” to herself.
My prediction is that Dunkirk will receive a ton of well-deserved Oscar nominations – Best Picture, Best Director, Cinematography, Best Supporting Actor for Mark Rylance, and more. Nolan deserves the accolades he will get here for never taking the easy way out and making a challenging film.