Dunkirk

I recently relocated from my hometown in Southern California to the Willamette Valley in Oregon – some 800 miles from home.  As such, I had to go to my very first movie without my best friend and movie-buddy.  I don’t have him to talk about the movie with, so you all get my opinions.

I saw Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s new film, this past Thursday.  I am a big Christopher Nolan fan with Inception topping my list and his Dark Knight trilogy trailing close behind. (I am also in the minority that loved Interstellar, and stuck with it all the way to the end – multiple times!)

Dunkirk is a work of historical fiction that takes place during the real-life Operation Dynamo (or as it’s more commonly called, the evacuation of Dunkirk or Miracle at Dunkirk).  In 1940, the Allied forces were forced off the continent, and for a time trapped on the beach outside a small town called Dunkirk, only 50 miles across the English Channel from England. Ships – both naval and civilian – ferried soldiers across the English channel.

Instead of telling the whole width and breadth of the evacuation, Nolan focused on a small handful of protagonists.  Each storyline was told at a different pace, and was interwoven throughout the film.  The story of the soldiers at Dunkirk was told over the course of a week; the story of the “small ships” was told over the course of a day, and the story of the fighter pilots was told over the course of an hour. (After my recent foray into Westworld, I’m becoming a huge fan of differing timelines – more on that in another blog post!)

The film ends with the rescue of the man and a newspaper reprint of Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech, which is a nice set up for what we know to be the rest of the war.

The film has been receiving mixed reviews with some people saying it omits so much of the real story of Dunkirk.  Had Christopher Nolan chosen to focus on specific, real people and situations then I would agree with them.  However, no movie could tell the entire story of Dunkirk – the context, the politics, the small stories, and all the moving pieces.  To do that would require an HBO mini-series, a la Band of Brothers or it’s lesser cousin, The Pacific.

Instead, the movie focuses on a small handful of fictional protagonists, each experiencing their small part of the evacuation.  This gives us a chance to focus on them and know that many more servicemen (and women – another omission for which movie has been criticized) had similar experiences.  There was no way 330,000+ men and women got home with one battleship and two fighter pilots defending them.

Christopher Nolan has iterated many times that he wanted to tell a story of survival, not just make a war movie (think Rescue Dawn as opposed to Platoon).  His protagonists surviving on the beach. His fighter pilot surviving in the air.  There is little to no blood and guts – we don’t see soldiers dismembered and screaming out in pain.  A few critics I read were disappointed in that.  I, for one, didn’t mind.  I can get my fix of that sort of thing by rewatching Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers for the 18th time.

Shot on 70mm film (true IMAX), it is a very visual film.  Compared to other war films, there is very little dialog.  I’m pretty sure the first line of dialog that meant anything was a good 15 minutes into the movie.  It didn’t need it.  Nolan could tell a story with very few words, and it was effective.

My response to critics (of this and any other historical movie) would be this:  if you want facts and the whole story – watch a documentary; read a book.  No one criticizes a painting or a sculpture for not telling a whole story.  Film is art – remember that.  This is one person’s interpretation of what happened at Dunkirk the week of May 26 – June 4, 1940.  I’m just happy we finally have a movie about the event.  Too many movies have been made about D-day, you’d think that was the only major event of WWII.  I can see why not many movies have been made about it – like Nolan said, it’s not a “war” story, it’s a survival story.

Dunkirk is what it is.  I enjoyed the film – it was worth the money to see it – though I will likely not be getting it on Blu-Ray.  It’s not a re-watch kind of movie (unless you just edit all of Tom Hardy’s parts together).  It was definitely worth the IMAX up charge, although I’m pretty sure I walked out of the theater deaf.  Normally Hans Zimmer’s scores are very bass-y and when you see them in IMAX, you feel your ribcage rumble.  With Dunkirk, my ears just stung.  To Nolan’s and his sound team’s credit, I believe it was as close as you could get to experiencing the real thing.

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