I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Dunkirk

Git ‘r dun, kirk! Well dun, kirk. Done ‘n dunk, kirk. What have you dun, kirk!? You know you dun kirked up, don’t you? You know that, right?

DUNKIRK is Mr. Christopher Nolan’s WWII (World War 2) movie, a sweeping epic in visual terms but kind of an intimate story; a historic event depicted through the perspectives of three groups of lightly developed characters. I saw it in Imax, and I’d guess 98% of the movie fills the entire gigantic screen from top to bottom. They cropped it briefly inside a small boat (probly didn’t want gigantic closeups) but otherwise your field of vision is filled with sky, sand, water, helmets, bodies, smoke. And Hans Zimmer’s stress-inducing score frequently mimics a ticking stopwatch as we watch these thousands of British soldiers trapped on a beach in France waiting to see whether they’re gonna be miraculously rescued or bombed to shit.

Nolan gotta be Nolan, so he gave a simple story a uniquely tricky structure. He intercuts between the soldiers on the beach, some citizens in a small boat and a few pilots in the sky, but titles tell us that their stories encompass one week, one day and one hour, respectively. You never feel like you’re skipping around in time, but it’s an illusion, a timeline repeatedly expanding and contracting until it gets to the end.

The land portion is about desperation and fear. These brave young enlisted men have presumably fought valiantly, but now there’s no one to fight. They’re painted into a corner, waiting, wondering where the Air Force is, who fucked up, how long they have left. In a harrowing sequence they cower as Nazi plans fly over, and there’s nothing to do but hope their bombs hit somebody else.

The two main guys we follow – sometimes through long dialogue-free stretches – climb up under a dock and do other sneaky things trying to cheat their way onto a boat before their turn. They even carry a wounded guy on a stretcher as a cheap ploy to cut in line. Eventually they’re hiding with some other soldiers below deck in a small fishing trawler that takes some bullets and starts filling up with water. Like the people in the ferries in THE DARK KNIGHT, some crack and start turning on each other, trying to throw each other under the bus. Or in this case into the water to be shot by Nazis. They turn into their worst selves, their inner rich-people-car-in-TRAIN-TO-BUSAN, the cowards who will gladly pick somebody else to be sacrificed in their place. But also like in DARK KNIGHT somebody speaks up for doing the right thing. Unfortunately it is not Tiny Lister in this one, just a skinny British kid.

The whiniest soldier is played by Harry Styles, a British boy band singer guy. I guess some people are annoyed by the casting because they find it distracting. Should’ve thought of that before you were born in a year where you were young enough to know who that is. Also I have some shocking new to share with you about Will Smith and Mark Wahlberg.

The sea portion of the movie is about a feeling of duty. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance, BLITZ) is a private citizen who decides to take his boat across to help with the evacuation. With him are his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and younger deckhand George (Barry Keoghan), who they didn’t expect to go but he insisted. Dawson, whose older son was a soldier, seems to be an avid follower of warfare and military hardware, which helps them understand the things they encounter.

They rescue a soldier (Cillian Murphy, TRON: LEGACY) floating on some wreckage after a U-boat attack. He’s in shock and freaks out when they tell him which direction they’re headed. So they end up having more of a threat from the guy they’re rescuing than the enemies they’re rescuing him from.

The air portion is about Tom Hardy. A dashing flying ace, he spends almost the entire movie in the cockpit with his mask on, but is still the character I cared most about. I appreciate that the distortion of the mask made him sound a little like Bane, and that he continues to be this generation’s greatest cinematic grunter. He offers air support for as long as he can, knowing his fuel won’t last forever and – with the gauge broken – that he won’t know he’s out until he’s out. Still he circles around and flies in to the rescue during some of the most exciting moments.

Nothing against the movie as is, but I would maybe prefer a LOCKE type deal where the whole thing is only Tom Hardy by himself in the plane. Or another possibility is that it’s the same movie they made but with Hardy playing every character.

You don’t get much of a chance to feel like you fully know these people, but you watch them survive (or not survive) incident after incident. They get bombed, shot at, shot at again, they get sunk, almost drowned, caught on fire. If it’s not this it’s that and if it’s not that it’s another thing and another thing after that, like trying to escape the world’s most relentless Texas chain saw massacre with 300,000 of your closest friends. And Nolan pulls out his most polished filmatism to put you in the middle of that. I did alot of wincing as people got it or almost got it.

I have to confess I misread some of the events and got slightly confused. At the beginning, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is stuffing propaganda leaflets in his waistband, apparently to use as toilet paper. But then he meets Gibson (Aneurin Barnard, IRONCLAD), who has stolen a dead soldier’s uniform, and Tommy’s is so clearly way too big for him too, and we never do see the leaflets come out, so it started me thinking that he too had stolen his uniform and was trying to stuff it to make it fit better. This seemed to be supported by him getting into the wrong line, like he didn’t know what he was doing. Is he too young to enlist and faking it because he wants to help? That would be dumb in this particular battle. Is he a German spy? Maybe we’re supposed to wonder at one point, but obviously he doesn’t turn out to be. I really thought it was telling me he was an impostor, so I spent the movie thinking I had missed something important at the beginning about what his deal was.

But I guess it’s an innocent explanation: he just had a uniform that was too big for him and had to take a shit real bad. That second issue he never does resolve, by the way, but maybe it’s in the novelization.

Like all technically masterful directors, Nolan is accused of emotional coldness and distance. I don’t think it’s quite that. Here we don’t really know much about the characters except for what they are willing to do in this life and death situation. We don’t have the scene where they sit around and talk about their home towns and their fiancees and shit. They lack specifics, but they’re universal. If you’re not a little moved by watching humans go through this, maybe it’s you.

I think this is an impressive filmatistic work that should be seen by anyone who likes such things. And I have great respect for Nolan and all of his movies. But I also have to confess that I don’t like this or any of his “grown up” movies, unless you count INCEPTION, as much as I like his Batman pictures. There’s something about his grand seriousness that for me is heightened when combined with the pulpy quality of super heroes. It can feel Heavy and Triumphant but still be extremely fun. In fact, I kind of suspect that’s the David S. Goyer factor – the joyous moments of levity or badassness or trickery, the things that connect DARK KNIGHT and BLADE but not DARK KNIGHT and INTERSTELLAR.

Not that I want that in his WWII movie. I’m just saying the Nolan magic is, to me, at its most potent with that extra ingredient of crowd-pleasing. But I’m glad he makes movies like this too. Let him do whatever he wants. So far that’s worked.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Monday, August 14th, 2017 at 7:25 am and is filed under Reviews, War. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

18 Responses to “Dunkirk”

  1. I dunno’, THE PRESTIGE and MEMENTO are still probably my favourites. But this was pretty good and I might try to see it again, if only because I didn’t see it in IMAX first time around (I hear it’s worth it).

  2. Crushinator Jones

    August 14th, 2017 at 8:12 am

    Glad to see Vern loves Tom Hardy as much as I do (Vern, check out Taboo for the greatest Show About Grunts ever made). Anyway, might i suggest that we Tom Hardy fans refer to ourselves as Hardy Boys? Just a thought.

  3. I enjoyed this one but I can’t help but feel this one would have been great if it were told chronologically rather than doing the time-skip thing. I will say this for the structure though, it’s way more successful than Nolan’s 4th Dimension alien (or whatever) twist in INTERSTELLER. Oh well, I made most of my thoughts known in the HEARTBREAK RIDGE comments. Anyways I liked it but didn’t love it like I was hoping to. Not sure why it’s being called a masterpiece other than the fact that Nolan fans are just as obnoxious as Edgar Wright fans when it comes to such things. Still, I recommend it. Unless you can see it in an actual IMAX theater I don’t see the need to go out of your way to see it in 70MM (my screening was 70MM but on a normal-sized screen and I was still somehow able to enjoy it).

    **Personal venting theater-going experience story follows, ignore if you don’t give a shit**
    *Fun 70MM story, so my three great times of seeing HATEFUL EIGHT in 70MM were not repeated here. The group I went with took their sweet time getting ready and then insisted on making a stop before the movie (which took much longer than planned). I told them constantly what theater we were going to and that there would be no trailers before hand. Naturally none of them listened to me. Then it started storming hard. So we missed the first five minutes, the theater was packed and we had to sit in the very front row and the flickering from the fllm-stock made a member of my party violently ill due to their sensitive eyesight and motion sickness. They were the main one that made us late so it was karmic justice. Unfortunately, that member was my live-in mom so I’m hearing them bitch about it still almost a month later.
    **Sorry, needed to vent that, suddenly me not inviting anyone to the movies with me anymore sounds like a great idea.
    ***I considered making my personal story DUNKIRK style by typing it out and then rearranging the sentences randomly but figured it would be too much. It would have been hilarious

  4. This one was good but it didn’t really blow me away. Like Vern, I found the scenes with Hardy the most involving, emotionally and filmatistically, possibly because I’ve been hearing stories about my British friend’s Spitfire pilot grandfather (still with us, despite getting shot down two or three times over Africa and taking shrapnel in the legs) so that stuff felt more immediate to me. I could picture this guy she’d describe to me behaving just the way Hardy and the other pilot did.

    At first I found the fractured timeline to be distancing, but then I started taking the editing’s word for it that these events were happening in chronological order and had no problem after that. I’ve watched plenty of B-movies that inexplicably switch from day to night from one scene to the next so that was easy for me to swallow. I also thought some of the suspense-generating devices (the cockpit canopy that won’t open even though we just saw it open a minute earlier being a prime example) were a little on-the-nose and manipulative. Like, the dude just crashed his tiny little plane into the enemy-infested open ocean while being impossibly stiff-upper-lip about it. Is that not enough? Do we really need to have the standard water-rushing-in-the-windows moment like every time an action hero drives his car into a river? Felt corny. Also I’m kind of hoping this movie sounds the death knell for the Zimmer Bwamf Noise, which felt really out of place and distracting in this context. At the peak moment of peril, I shouldn’t be subconsciously wondering if that strafing Fokker is going to transform into a Decepticon.

    But those are minor things. It’s a very good movie, and it doesn’t shoot itself in the dick at the end like Nolan is prone to. Maybe you need to see that extra acreage of footage at the top and bottom of the IMAX screen to think it’s a masterpiece, but that’s okay. I’ve never really liked masterpieces.

  5. “I’ve never really liked masterpieces.”
    -Mr. Majestyk

    You uncultured swine!

    To go with your B-movie analogy it would have been cool if Nolan added in a whole bunch of those zoom-shots where the camera wobbles and zooms in all curved-like like you’d see every single one of those low-budget 70s/80s exploitation cheapie movies. Ya know, for old time sake.

    As for the Fokker maybe being a Decepticon, that would have been funny-cool cross-promotion with the revelation that Bumblebee fought in WWII in TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT.

  6. This one worked for me, 100%. The fractured timeline aspect paid off for me in moments like [SPOILERS from here on] when you saw Tom Hardy circling over the sinking blue trawler, then cut back to the beach with the soldiers desperately trying to get that trawler afloat. I really liked the establishing-character-through-action-not-words aspect, too… you don’t need to know a thing about any of the protagonists, just learn about them as people by watching what they do. The two guys on the beach don’t need to talk about why latching onto the stretcher crew might be a good idea; they just look at each other and go for it. Tom Hardy doesn’t need to tell anyone about why he might want to jeopardize his chance of getting home safely to stay and fight off the German bomber; you just seem him thinking the situation through for a few seconds and then making his choice. I really liked “Gravity” except for the fact that the film felt it had to give Sandra Bullock a recovering-from-trauma backstory, as though just watching a fellow human trying to survive in desperate circumstances wasn’t enough; this movie gave the audience a lot more credit than that and I appreciated it. And the final shot just laid me out.

  7. That’s a good point, Ben. It was nice that it didn’t resort to Gravitizing the backstories to get us to give a shit. It might have been nice to have more distinguishing characteristics among the very samey-looking cast members, but maybe that was the point. It could have been anybody out there.

  8. Dunna dunna dunna dunna, dunna dunna dunna dunna, DUNKIRK! Dunna dunna dunna dunna…KAPOW! BAM!

    Haven’t seen this yet but by contrast, and coincidence, I watched the Mario Van Peebles directed Cage WW#2-er USS INDIANAPOLIS – MEN OF COURAGE last night and it had a large portion of sentimental good-ole American cheese dripping off the sides of some of it’s characterizations. I would have preferred to have known nothing about these men (who they’re in love with, how they aspire to be a writer etc), when the situation they are in (torpedoed by a Jap submarine, stranded in the Philippine sea and served as a floating shark buffet) should be intense enough to draw characters around. See Quint’s monologue in JAWS for the scarier version.

  9. Republican Cloth Coat

    August 14th, 2017 at 6:13 pm

    Messerschmidts not Fokkers. WWII not WWI.

  10. Haven’t seen this yet, but I have a soft spot for the 1958 Ealing film version. As far as I remember that had only the two story-lines, and a decent amount of character development. Anyone seen both?

  11. Sounds like you had funkirk!

    I think I get Majestyk. The way I put it is: I hate important movies. Of course, I’ve violated this statement many times, and happily. What I really mean is, a film better have more reason to exist than just “this is important.” If you can do that, like Apocalypse Now or Schindler’s List or Life is Beautiful, then you’ve got a reason to exist.

    Franchise Fred approves Dunkirk 2: Hardly ‘Kirkin’.

  12. Republican Cloth Coat, weren’t they all a bunch of fokkers?

  13. I can’t wait to see this one! I love war movies and I’ve been a fan of Nolan’s ever since Memento (reminds me, I need to rewatch that…been over 15 years, I think). Everybody tells me I need to see it in Imax, but there isn’t one near me. That’s why I’ve been putting it off.

  14. I enjoyed this a lot but the two guys on the beach left me cold. On our podcast we had a little debate as to what this film would have been like in other directors’ hands:

    Peter Berg – a solid procedural with a 15 minute epilogue and list of every soldier involed

    Mel Gibson – lots and lots of gratuitous gore

    Michael Bay – more pyrotechincs, “bomb cam” and soppy patriotism

    Terence Mallick – 2hrs watching the guys on the beach making sand castles…

    …and so on

  15. Is it racist to say that all those British people look alike? Because I had a near impossible time watching the movie telling one character from the other.

  16. I completely agree with Jeff G. But main weakness is that this happening wasn’t brightest event in history of UK/France military history and Germans holding back meant that there weren’t much urgency too – I liked the aspect that enemy stayed anonymous, but anonymous can also be threatening, not just slightly discomfort like in this movie.
    It never felt grandiose on the screen, mostly we saw maximum 200-300 soldiers at once. And what happened when they were on the screen? WAITING. This word is never good in movies. I was waiting for the stakes to escalate during the course of the movie but sadly in never happened.
    It’s beyond me why Nolan chose such a lacklustre story to tell, I believe there are at least 100 more interesting, engaging and most importantly – entertaining, stories from WW2.

  17. I don’t know Harry Styles from any other British white guy.

    Brilliant line about breaking the news about Will Smith and Wahlberg tho!

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