Arguing About Dunkirk

This film nearly broke my wife and me up. That it is to say, I wanted to walk out in the middle and she wanted to stay. I thought I had seen all there was to see and that the movie was on an utterly predictable course, and Stephanie thought that it was fascinating in the way it dodged all of the standard war film clichés. We stayed.

A lot of people have disagreed about Christopher Nolan’s WWII epic story of the evacuation of 400,000 soldiers from the German-surrounded French town of Dunkirk in 1940. The New York Times praised it to the skies; the Wall Street Journal thought it was a “dumbing down.” The New Yorker was schizophrenic: First it says that there are “many ways in which the film falls short,” but then it concludes that “the movie works.”

Before we continue, perhaps you should look at the trailer so that you can get a taste of what the film is like:

The film follows three different groups of men: a trio of soldiers at Dunkirk itself, over the course of a week; a trio of rescuers, over the course of a day; and a trio of British Spitfire pilots, over the course of an hour. Nolan, in one of his favored gambits, distorts the timestream so that the sequences looks like they are simultaneous, cutting between events that would have taken place hours or days apart. At the end, all of the time-sequences converge.

Several Times commenters referred to this intercutting as “amateurish.” I don’t think things are that simple. First principle of movie watching: judge the film by what the writer and director are trying to achieve. Clearly Nolan is after something more that mere dramatic effect. He seems to be saying that in crises everything feels as if it is happening all at once. He more or less succeeded in this effort, at least for me, although at times I was disoriented, not in the “good” way Nolan intended, but just in a jumbled way. Stephanie and I did not discuss this aspect of the film explicitly but I think we agreed that it was not amateurish.

Another thing that various reviewers and commenters mentioned is that Dunkirk never provides historic context. They wanted to see Churchill or the British high command. They wanted to see the evils of Nazism that the gallant British and French were doing battle with. Second principle of movie watching: make sure you are talking about the film in front of you and not some other film that you would have made. Dunkirk is not one of those war movies that begins with a map of Europe showing the different armies moving in animated arrows. It does have a map, but it’s a simple map on propaganda leaflets dropped by the Germans on the British to make them give up.

Third principle of movie watching: use the categories your teachers worked so hard to teach you in school, for example, point of view. War movies occasionally use the first-person perspective, in which we see the action through a character’s eyes as he is under fire or running away. In these cases, a shaky hand-held camera is usually used. This technique is often employed to portray fear. The first-person is used sparingly in Dunkirk, most notably when we look through a pilot’s machine-gun target sight on his plane.

However, war movies, like most movies, usually use the third-person point of view, in which the camera follows characters around and records what they say and do without explicitly getting into their heads. This is basically the third-person limited perspective. But many war movies mix in some third-person omniscient material. Here is where we get the maps and voiceovers, etc. Cutting to the high command can also be a way to insert something like an omniscient perspective.

Dunkirk is 97% third-person limited, and 2% first-person. It is utterly immersive. We never step back from events and see them from an outsider’s perspective. The closest we get is with Kenneth Branagh’s Admiral Bolton, who discusses the “big picture” with an army colonel whose name I did not catch. (Most of the characters in Dunkirk are not given names until the credits.) But even Bolton is trapped on the pier and might not get away; he is not some posh minister back in London. The only bit of omniscient narrative is right at the beginning where titles introduce the three settings and their time frames.

Here is where Stephanie and I started to part company. It’s not that I minded the immersive aspect. I didn’t miss the omniscient point of view. But I found one scene of men struggling to escape drowning after another a little tedious. Nolan was trying to convey their experience. I got that. But I didn’t need to see it so many times. I felt as if I were drowning. And even Stephanie felt that the Spitfire sequences were too much like a video game. As we’ll see, however, I was missing something big.

Some of the film’s critics are just crazy. USA Today’s reviewer said that the lack of women and persons of color in the story might “rub people the wrong way”! (One of the French soldiers, a face in a crowd, is black, and there are a few female nurses on one of the ships, but they are not really “characters.”) And the Times reviewer concludes her rave review with a bit of raving lunacy when she says that the fight against fascism continues.

This last comment is wrong on so many counts. The Germans are not even referred to as “Germans” in Dunkirk, much less as fascists, but only as “the Enemy” in the opening titles. The rest of the time they are off-screen and are not referred to as anything. Furthermore the Times reviewer is clearly trying to conscript Nolan (who is British) into her “resistance” to Donald Trump. Poor Nolan! Even though he’s British, everything he does has to be about American politics. By the way, such a big production as Dunkirk had to be conceived, written and shot long before Trump won the White House.

Not that isn’t fair to say that a movie is “about” something outside of itself, even something topical. Michael Mann’s fine film Public Enemies, with its cowboy police officers and use of torture, is clearly in part a commentary on the War on Terror. But Nolan is after something more universal in Dunkirk, and we shouldn’t try to cheapen him as the Times reviewer does. Fourth principle of movie watching: Don’t use artworks to advance your own agenda.

So what is Nolan’s agenda? If I had walked out when I wanted to, I would have missed it. Dunkirk’s setting is the evacuation of the soldiers at Dunkirk in 1940, but Nolan is not making a historical film about real events. It’s not a docudrama. It’s too stylized for that, with its grey palette and long sequences of pure cinema.

Nolan is clearly making a universal point about the chaos of war and the existential capriciousness of some aspects of life. But there is something else deeper, even evanescent to it. It is a story about survival, but more than survival. It is obviously about heroism, but not the obvious kind. Yes, the private ship crew that goes to rescue soldiers is heroic. Yes, the Spitfire pilots are heroic just for being there. However, something goes beyond this recruiting-poster version of heroism.

Almost all of the major characters have one special moment of understated heroism or humanity. Nolan doesn’t bracket it. He doesn’t put a halo on it. If you are not paying attention, you may not know what you are looking at. Fifth principle of movie watching: Pay attention to the bloody details! Don’t expect the point to be dropped into your lap.

No one gets up and makes a speech about what they’re doing. Most of them don’t even get to think about it for more than a moment or two. It happens in the cracks between giant blocks of grinding stone.

These are defining moments of character. That is, in my opinion, what the movie’s about. Do you have character, even when you don’t even know who’s shooting at you? Do you have character, even when someone has just killed your friend? Do you have character enough to stay when you could go?

It’s not about self-sacrifice. As the skipper of the rescue yacht says, “If we go home, there will be no home to go to.” Rather, it is about loyalty.

If I had walked out, I would have missed this. Fortunately, my better self made me stay.

If you enjoyed this essay you may also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life