You should probably just go
by Thom Yee
I’m not sure war is something I feel comfortable talking about, not even here, in written form, through the lens of reviewing a movie about war. Not completely comfortable with anyways. We haven’t reviewed many war movies in the 5 years we’ve been doing GOO Reviews, and up until now I’m not even sure I’ve ever really watched a war movie all the way through. At least not ones that didn’t also have the words ‘Star’, ‘Inglourious’, or ‘The First Avenger’ in their titles. I have a feeling those ones don’t really count.
As a millennial, war isn’t one of those things I’ve ever had to seriously consider as a component of life, not in the enlistment or conscription sense at any rate, and my most vivid memories of the topic of war are reviewing the numbers of dead due to wars in textbooks for the purposes of passing tests. That’s the kind of thing I used to complain about actually: that I only knew of these things from a distance, almost tangentially, that the lessons of war as taught through our school’s’ version(s) of History so often left me cold, their realities felt only as abstractions. Now that I’m a little bit older (well, quite a bit older than high-school-social-studies aged if we’re being honest), I’ve now at least gained the wisdom to realize that the ability to freely express that complaint and the free time to form such complaints comes in many ways as the result of the wars fought and won. While the pressures and trivialities of everyday life can sometimes cloud that line of thinking, movies can help to make it clear, particularly in the case of Dunkirk where the story is honed down to such a fine and bitter point. And that’s important, because, again in the enlistment or conscription sense, these freedoms we enjoy, even the ability to complain, is a hell of a lot better than the alternative.
What’s it about?
On May 26, 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the evacuation of allied soldiers, at that point surrounded by German troops, from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk in the North of France. This is that story.
I doubt this comes as too big of a shock, but movie studios don’t really know what they’re doing anymore. Major Disney releases flounder at the box office and have to be written off by the studio, Tom Cruise movies regularly make $100 million or less at the domestic box office (good ones too) in an era where movies about shrinking superheroes twice that (and 5 times that worldwide), and Steven Spielberg movies go in and out of theatres with almost no notice. Just last week director Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets made only $17 million in its first weekend of release against a budget of $177 million, and that’s not good when most movies need to earn at least twice their production budgets during their theatrical release just to break even (considering the additional costs of marketing, theatre shares, and other miscellaneous expenses, though Valerian does seem to have been handled a little financially different than most). While it’s true that the biggest movies of the year keep making record profits, almost all of those movies are based on pre-existing intellectual properties, are direct sequels to previous installments, or act as pieces of an overarching franchise.
That’s why it’s remarkable when a movie like Dunkirk debuts at the top of the weekend box office to a $50 million opening (even if that number pales against whatever the last Marvel movie opened at), because it’s a movie that many of us saw first and foremost because it’s a Christopher Nolan movie. There just aren’t that many directors who wield that kind of power anymore. Dunkirk’s opening weekend fell roughly in line with industry expectations and the director’s previous works, just ahead of 2014’s Interstellar and a bit behind 2010’s Inception (though notably behind the director’s biggest works, though those can’t really be counted in the same breath for Batman-related reasons]). Even Michael Bay, one of the only other big-name directors of our modern movie era and a director whose work has earned billions of dollars for Paramount with their Transformers franchise, can’t open a non-franchise movie like 13 Hours or Pain & Gain at more than $20 million. Of course it also doesn’t help Bay’s case that his movies, almost director opposites to Nolan’s, are uniformly horrendous. With Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan doesn’t have movie stars, franchise implications, heady concepts, or even a concept with very broad audience appeals, but it still did well because we’ve learned to trust him.
That or everything I’ve just written is completely wrong and most of you only went to it because you heard Harry Styles is in it.
Is it any good?
I think the best word to describe Dunkirk is ‘riveting’. It’s not really exciting or explosive in the ways of a typical action movie or even a lot of war movies, but it starts right in the middle of the action (such as it is), with exactly the right amount of quiet to let you know how fleeting those moments are and how easily that same quiet can cause these troops to be suddenly caught off their guard. It’s not a constant barrage of enemy fire so much as a mix of precision bombing and errant shooting, shooting that’s just as often ineffective and aimless as it can be precise and devastating. Many of the scenes are dominated by a sense of fear, unease, and dread without ever directly showing us enemy forces or even a single enemy combatant’s face, and that impersonality can make Dunkirk a little disengaging as a story but quite absorbing as a visual and very immersive in what it must actually have been like to be there.
Following three major narratives along land, sea and air, we first meet the British soldiers dutifully waiting for their turn to board ships back to England while avoiding the bombs of the German air raiders; then, on the other side of the English Channel, the British Royal Navy now forced to commandeer private civilian boats; and finally the three Spitfire pilots (one of whom is played by this movie’s biggest star, Tom Hardy) providing air support to the waiting soldiers on the beach and waters beneath them. You may have [rightly] heard that Dunkirk is told in a non-linear fashion, but that lack of linearity shouldn’t give you the impression that it’s ever hard to follow or akin to a story told backwards by an unreliable narrator with a short-term memory condition, it’s more a storytelling choice that shows how all of these physically separate stories naturally intertwine while allowing them each the necessary time and space to reach their own conclusions. Other than a few characters not being in the place you last saw them, there’s really very little to indicate that the three stories aren’t happening concurrently, and there’s nothing confusing or bewilding or otherwise overtly poetic about how it all comes together in the end.
It’s, therefore, largely up to you and your personal movie preferences as to whether or not you’ll see Dunkirk as a masterful cinematic experience or a technically strong but personally unexceptional movie that doesn’t live up to the hype. I personally fall far more if not entirely on the side of the former as not only is the movie technically brilliant, I think it’s the right choice and a really honest choice to remain so distant from the soldiers as individuals, sticking more to the broader context of how the situation at Dunkirk would have affected the thousands of Allied troops caught on the wrong side of the English Channel. There are no personally identifiable villains in Dunkirk and few if any heroic figures, and, as the story of a massive military retreat, we see that this operation, though ultimately successful (at least for the English), is far from a story of good triumphing over evil. It’s a simple story of survival, told with a cast of hundreds of thousands, and how spectacular and improbable just surviving would be under such conditions.
Reading all of this though may make it seem that where Dunkirk achieves technical strengths, it sacrifices emotional investment, and while that’s somewhat true, it’s an objective approach to the story that proves to be ultimately satisfying, an approach clearly free of narrative sentiment that allows you to arrive at your own conclusions, and that seems appropriate given the subject matter. The only consistent element of the movie that comes anywhere near manipulative is the near-constant tick-tock sounds and rhythms of the movie’s score that gives everything an unyielding sense of elevated tension. It’s a bitter, war-torn piece that never quite lets you relax, even in its quiet moments, whether it’s the group of young soldiers simply trying to stay hidden in an abandoned fishing trawler until the tide comes in and they can get back home, the flyers calculating how much they can do for the troops below before running out of fuel, or the boats, packed with as many survivors as they can carry, speeding away from the fiery wreckage of ships brought down by German torpedoes.
So should I see it?
Honestly, I found it hard not to feel a little bit bad after watching Dunkirk, but I think that’s a good thing, and I hope you feel kind of horrible after watching it too, because if you do that means you’ve successfully watched the movie. There are moments that will stay with you in Dunkirk, small moments of valor that save lives, people doing the wrong things for the right reasons and people who do the right things still dying in the end, moments where soldiers are drowned or horribly burned only metres away from other soldiers who just managed to make it, and moments when soldiers, just waiting for their turn to leave, have to push away the corpses of other soldiers floating towards them so they don’t pile up, and all of it is quietly (and occasionally loudly) affecting while being completely free of sentiment or sap or any hint of emotional manipulation.
Dunkirk isn’t a glorification of the evacuation, it’s far more just a lot of what it must have been like to be there. Sure, the camera angles are dramatic, and the scenes are arranged with impact and focused more on the tense and meaningful than the mundane (though they do spend a bit of time on one of the soldiers going to the bathroom), but there’s very little attempt to squeeze emotionality or pathos into what’s being presented. No one here’s going to return from the dead or give some half-baked monologue on how love is the one universal constant. The field of war in Dunkirk doesn’t discriminate between right and wrong, fired bullets remain stray more often than they hit, people die and live through luck alone, and even when you notice that, “Hey, that one soldier looks like the kid with the hair from One Direction!”, there is no hero’s journey for anyone here to experience. There is one extremely small moment between Cillian Murphy’s character, a shell-shocked officer, and one of the boys on the boat as they were pulling soldiers out of the war towards the movie’s end that stood out to me as exceptionally powerful, but it’s the only such occasion in the film, and it stands out as much as it does thanks largely because of the otherwise straightforward storytelling.
If you find a flaw in Dunkirk, I think it would have much more to do with what you want in a movie rather than this movie’s craft or choices. For what it is, Dunkirk is nearly flawless. That doesn’t mean it’s my favourite movie, that doesn’t mean it should be yours or that you even have to like it, and it might not even make our Top 10 of 2017 at the end of the year, but you should probably go see it. I don’t think there’s a thing wrong with it.
Thom’s Dunkirk final score