Dunkirk: A Movie Review, Sort Of

In Spring, a young man’s fancy turns to not getting shot, not getting blown up, not drowning and just possibly, making it home alive. Late Spring, anyway. May of 1940. The coast of France. The beaches of Dunkirk.

Director Christopher Nolan is described by IMDB as “Best known for his cerebral, often nonlinear storytelling”. The movie Dunkirk is told from three points of view, and nonlinear is a good term for it. One point of view is from soldiers on the beach, another, that of a Spitfire pilot and the last, the civilian captain of one of the boats in the rescue flotilla.

The nonlinear aspect is off putting to some. In one scene you see from the cockpit of a Spitfire, pursuit of a German Messerschmidt about to attack some ships. Later in the film, from the point of view from the ship, you see a Messerschmidt about to attack, pursued by a Spitfire. Each layer adds to a fuller understanding of what is taking place, though it may not be obvious at first.

I’d known the story of Dunkirk since I was a lad, but I’d never realized its scope: four hundred thousand men, surrounded, with their backs against the sea, sitting ducks for the Luftwaffe. In a case of what may have been dueling bureaucracies, the Germans would not commit their tanks to finishing off the British army, along with their French and Belgian allies, and the British will not commit a sufficient number of Spitfires to fly cover, or destroyers to relocate the army, lest they be needed to protect the homefront.

Speaking of scope, the cinematography is tremendous and sweeping. The aerial dogfights are spectacular. The attention to historical accuracy was very good. For example the depiction of the Spitfire pilot hand pumping his landing gear was not uncommon, even in some American fighters of that era.

There have been several complaints about the movie, one from an Internet twit, who shall remain nameless, who said the movie “feels like an excuse for men to celebrate maleness”. There is very little resembling machismo in this film. Just the historical account of 400,000 men trying to stay alive. Perhaps 50,000 to 70,000 of them didn’t. They were bombed, strafed, torpedoed, many drowned. Those who survived, some were wounded, most watched their friends and complete strangers dying around them, wondering if any minute that fate might be theirs. Yet some extremely shallow twit person speaks of “celebrating maleness”.

Still, this may not be the most stupid complaint.
I hear some were chiding the movie for its “lack of diversity”. Translation: a movie about an historical event where close to 100% were white males, there was not enough “diversity” in the casting. Funny. I didn’t hear anyone complain there wasn’t enough “diversity” on Wonder Woman’s island of Themyscira, where there wasn’t a man or transgendered woman in sight! They could have cast Caitlyn Jenner, in the role she was born to play, an Amazon with more upper body strength than the rest, kicking their butts from here to Sunday!
Nope. No men. No transgendered! 

Last, I heard a complaint that Churchill’s role should have been bigger. (He wasn’t in the movie at all!) One soldier returning home from Dunkirk did read an excerpt from one of Churchill’s speeches about “fighting on the beaches”, but that was about it. The movie wasn’t about Churchill. It really wasn’t about the war. In fact, there’s hardly a German to be seen anywhere.

The movie isn’t about heroism, writ large, but more of a quiet, resolute heroism. A calm determination to do what needs to be done, whatever the personal cost might be. Duty, not machismo.
The father who lost a son to the war resolutely determines that he will not let that happen to his fellow countrymen if he has anything to say about it. 

I will reluctantly have to add a fourth, but minor quibble myself. Putting on my Mr. Language Person hat, at the very start of the movie, they put up three statements, all beginning with “The enemy have…”. I’m sorry, but shouldn’t that be “the enemy has”? Or “the Germans have”? Enemy is a collective noun, like “herd”. Even though there are many cattle, you say that the herd is here. Or our enemies are here. You would never say, “The herd are here”, would you?

In spite of its brief grammatical lapse, and the unbearable whiteness of its cast /sarc, I recommend you see Dunkirk. It is a realistic glimpse into what may have been the turning point of WWII. Had the British army been wiped out at Dunkirk, there may never have been a D-Day.

I give it four out of five stars.

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