Movie Review: Dunkirk

Nothing self-important about this poster.

Dunkirk * 2017 * Rated PG-13 * 1 Hour 46 Minutes

😸😸🔵🔵🔵 Rated 2/5 Happy lap cats


The film Dunkirk, written, produced and directed by Christopher Nolan (Interstellar, Inception) is a 1 hour and 46 minute long slow motion action sequence. It’s like watching snails race, with stops for a chat about the state of the world and a cup of tea every few minutes. But the snails don’t actually have much to say, certainly nothing that hasn’t been said before, and better, by others.

Dunkirk tells the story of the evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk Beach in France in 1940, early in World War 2. 400,000 soldiers were stranded there, with Germans pressing down on them and not enough ships to get them out. A flotilla of small civilian boats crossed the English Channel to pick up 300,000 of the stranded soldiers and return them to Britain, many more than were expected to be rescued.

The film follows men in the air, sea and on land who are fighting to get the soldiers home. Each element highlights a few characters and their journeys, but doesn’t develop them as compelling individuals. The focus is exclusively on the tasks at hand and the immediate difficulties they face. The only character background we learn is what affects getting the men home. What would, in most movies, be a few small vignettes is meant to pass as the plot of Dunkirk.

We are meant to viscerally feel the sweeping experience, not focus on details like what the movie’s about. But without plot or character, we’re left with the action, which drags and gets repetitive. Soldiers stare into the distance endlessly. Planes almost run out of fuel endlessly. Boats and ships sink endlessly, in slooow motion. The mole, a thin jetty that the soldiers must inexplicably stand on while they wait out in the open for days, gets bombed by the Germans, endlessly. After a while you’re not surprised that the British and French were losing before the Americans joined the war.

Dialogue is limited almost completely to procedural messages discussing the progress of the enemy and the rescue. Most of it is shouted in the background. The music is heavily featured, reminiscent of a John Williams score. It’s manipulative and overbearing, telling us when the big, moving moments are happening and how to react.

The movie has an interesting look, with its slightly sepia-toned gray palette, soft lighting and a penchant for wide outdoor shots that focus on natural elements like the beach, the sea and the weather. Everything has a soft focus and a misty gray cast. Water is everywhere, in virtually every shot, so that the viewer never forgets that biggest enemy here is the channel of water between Dunkirk and home. It’s pretty to look at, like a painting or a beautiful old photograph, but five minutes of the film will give you what you need. The rest is redundant.

The filmmakers don’t trust the audience to know when we’re supposed to feel, and which emotion. The sound and cinematography are designed to milk the desired emotions from us, but the screenplay and acting do little to earn them. Men stand around looking noble and brave, or scared and helpless. When they die or are rescued we’re supposed to be moved simply because they were soldiers. But the film doesn’t give more than a cursory explanation of the situation at the beginning, or of the progress and strategy of the overall rescue plan as it continues. It’s hard to cheer for an event that’s obscure and confused, even if history tells us which side we’re supposed to be on.

The few women represented at Dunkirk are nurses, kept in the background with no dialogue. It’s made clear that they aren’t what’s important here. They are never shown dying or being rescued from drowning when a ship is torpedoed, for example, while the soldiers they were tending moments before get a long sequence. They simply become invisible. There are also apparently no women in Britain, as the scenes there don’t show women either.

The film has been criticized for whitewashing the true events at Dunkirk. Virtually everyone in the film is a white man. Literally one shot in the entire film, close to the end, shows 4 or 5 black soldiers on a boat. In reality, thousands of soldiers of color fought on the beach, worked to rescue trapped soldiers, helped bring supplies to the stranded, and died along with the rest.

Instead of showing the truth of the history of Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan left out the French, the Middle Easterners, the Africans, and the Asians. He tells a story that glorifies war, classism, and toxic masculinity. Throughout, we are told that these white men and boys are British Soldiers. They have stiff upper lips, and their personal and individual lives are irrelevant. All that matters is that they bring the Glory of Victory to Churchill and Britain, and don’t appear to be cowards while they do it.

Let me save you from watching this movie: War is hell. The British are brave, never give up and are all white men. World War 2 was sepia toned. That’s all you need to know.

If you’d like to see an excellent war movie that includes scenes about Dunkirk, rent the 2007 film Atonement, which was nominated for 6 Oscars, won 1, and won the Golden Globe for Best Picture-Drama. There’s enough drama, plot, character development, war, epic cinematography and music (that’s what it won the Oscar for) to share with Dunkirk.

Dunkirk was nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Score. If you are a white guy, and you haven’t won your Best Picture/Best Director combo yet, a World War 2 epic is sure to do the trick. Except Dunkirk and The Darkest Hour will probably cancel each other out this year. So sad/too bad.

For this film to be nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, while Dee Rees was snubbed for both awards for Mudbound, burns me up. It illustrates how far women and people of color, and especially women of color, have to go before they will be on an equal footing with white men tossing out schlocky war epics that pander to each other’s egos.


Poster Credit: Warner Bros Entertainment