“Dunkirk,” a Review
Epic and Intimate Film
So, my friends, movie ads promoting Dunkirk claim that it’s both epic and intimate.
Ok, I get the epic sweep of the movie with the horrific bombing scenes, the spine-tingling rescues, the vast lines of soldiers on Dunkirk beach completely defenseless against German planes, the claustrophobic scenes of soldiers trapped inside flooding gun-boats and sinking rescue ships.
The movie as an “intimate” portrayal of war? I am hazarding a guess here: maybe the intimacy of the movie was the existential fear an audience felt for the six or seven characters who were, literally, given more characterization time than anyone else in the film.
In a sense we befriend them, on a somewhat personal level, certainly more than just seeing the epic, detached shots of soldiers on the beach.
Cardboard Characters in a War Zone
And yet, most of those characters were only presented as cardboard characters inside a war-zone. They had no other identities except within that small frame of surviving, reacting, or, in the father’s case, giving small didactic sermons about how war is not just the responsibility of the military.
We get to know the two sons, certainly. But our psychological connection to them was somewhat limited to their roles as rescuers with their father. When one of the brothers is struck by a pilot who was rescued by the father and two sons, he falls down the stairs into the lower deck and hits his head.
The intimate scenes between the two brothers, while the one is doing everything to keep his brother comfortable and alive, are very compelling. When the brother dies, the scene becomes more of a stereotypical fatality-of-war incident. Its emotional content, from an aesthetic point of view, becomes a kind of cliché so universally identifiable that its intimacy becomes drained of anything really personal.
The first pilot’s role as a character in the film is to act out his direct challenge to the father and two sons not to return to Dunkirk after he is rescued.
We certainly share his panic when his plane falls into water and he’s unable to open the glass hatch above the cockpit and the water starts rushing in. But the panic, again, is a universal reaction any human would have that an audience can feel into on an immediate level.
What is Intimacy in a Film?
Intimacy, in my judgment, is not about reacting to a universal fear. It is not a fight-or-flight visceral reaction to blood and gore or claustrophobia inside a cockpit or the bowels of a ship. It is about getting into somebody’s panic you feel you have known as a real person, so much so that you feel connected to them from the inside not just as an audience eating popcorn and guzzling down a large coke.
Nolan spends a lot of action time with the second pilot who is portrayed as a stereotype of the fast-reacting hero who downs enemy planes flying over Dunkirk beach. When his plane runs out of fuel, he guides the plane into a safe landing on the beach and then is captured by the Germans.
His role is that of the war hero—-that’s it.
One Redeeming Character
One character, in particular, stays with the action of the film from the beginning to the end. His first role is to start the tension of the story as he walks along the streets of Dunkirk, in an eerie silence, reading German pamphlets dropped from the sky. And then his panic as he rushes through the town fleeing from German artillery fire. He manages to get to the beach.
There is a kind of intimacy we share with him because he is a known character right from the get-go. And the director gives the young man a real personality when the young soldier figures out how to rush ahead of the line of soldiers waiting to be rescued. He finds a wounded soldier and manages to get him on a stretcher which he and another soldier rush through one of the lines.
If anything, the young man is more of a passive survivor who “reacts” with no grand survival skills and narrowly escapes from the bombings, drowning, sinking ships, and hanging on to a rope of a small rescue boat. The arbitrariness of whatever fate keeps him alive is probably one of the most poignant elements in the film, at least from this viewer’s perspective.
When he arrives back in England, he sinks down into a train seat totally exhausted. The look on his fatigued face clearly indicates that he is so traumatized he doesn’t have any energy left to take it all in. And I get the sense that, even if he had all his wits about him, he would be too young to get the full scope of what he had managed to survive.
Christopher Nolan, in the end, has one task left for the boy—-to read Churchill’s famous “We shall fight on the beaches….” speech as an heroic call to all of England not to give up the fight.
“Dunkirk” as an Action Film, the Default Zone
This morning, on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” I heard a scientist share that in working with young students, she found that boys “like to blow up things.”
To his credit, Christopher Nolan certainly knew how to do that in this film. However, the war scenes, as terrifyingly brilliant as they were for their visual intensity, left me thinking that Nolan had decided to go into the Hollywood action-film default zone.
Except for his portrayal of the young soldier who starts and ends the film in a kind of stark, numbed innocence, Nolan succeeded in giving the same-old-same-old action war film.
In the end, money talks. And Nolan will undoubtedly make lots of it from this film.