Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s latest film, is getting rave reviews and is penciled in as the first sure-fire Oscar nominee. Therefore, I ended up puzzled and disappointed. I recommend Dunkirk, but not enthusiastically.
It is of course about the evacuation of British and French troops from a corner of France across the English Channel, after the Germans had beat them back and cornered them. 300,000 men were jammed onto the beach, waiting for the Germans to capture or kill them. It’s a big deal in England, not as much in the U.S. because they weren’t involved (it was 1940). For a certain generation, Dunkirk is a major part of the English consciousness, even though it was a retreat.
Nolan, who loves to go non-linear, divides the story into three parts, basically land, air, and sea. The land, or The Mole (not the burrowing mammal but a pier and jetty thrusting out into the Channel) covers one week ot time, The Sea covers one day, and The Air one hour. This makes for some time-bending that can be very confusing, as we go from daylight to night and then back again.
I’ll start with the best, and that’s The Air, which covers a couple of spitfire pilots who are the only air cover the soldiers have. Although we get a cliche of a gas gauge not working, the storyline here is clear and precise–shoot down German dive bombers. And they do, in some of the most thrilling dogfight footage I’ve seen (the best, I think, is Wings, way back in 1927, because they used actual planes).
Tom Hardy is the ace, but he doesn’t say much (when a German plane goes into the drink, he calmly says, “He’s down for the count”). Mostly we only see his eyes, as he’s wearing an oxygen mask, but Hardy’s eyes do all the talking. The one bit of genuine excitement in the film is when Hardy has to decide, on low fuel, whether to fly back to England or shoot down a bomber headed for a ship laden with men. What do you think he does?
The Sea has Mark Rylance as a proper Englishman, dressed in sweater and tie, taking his boat out to help rescue the soldiers. This is probably the most memorable part of the history, as hundreds of “Little Ships” aided in the cause. He is accompanied by his son and a teenage friend, and they pick up a man sitting atop the wreckage of his ship (Cillian Murphy). He is suffering from what we now call PTSD and when he hears that Rylance is taking the ship towards Dunkirk he is enraged–that’s the last place he wants to go.
The Mole is the section I had the most trouble with. It kicks off with a soldier (Fionn Whitehead) surviving a fusillade of German guns. He and another soldier, whom he meets burying another soldier, try to get aboard a ship going out while holding a stretcher bearing another man. From then on I had to check Wikipedia to see what happened, as the soldiers all look alike and there is absolutely no characterization. They are also largely indecipherable, with thick accents. They go to one ship, then jump off when it’s hit, get on another ship, same thing, then get in an empty fishing boat and get shot at. At this point I had completely lost the thread.
The other part of The Mole is Kenneth Branagh as the naval commander standing at the end of the pier, peering off to see England. His job is mainly to say “Home” in warm tones, while shedding a British tear. Really, what this section needed was title cards that said simply, “Day 1,” “Day 4,” etc., to give the audience some perspective on the time passed. Otherwise it appears that Branagh has been standing at the end of that pier for the whole week.
Visually the film is stunning, shot in blues and grays and olive greens by Hoyte van Hoytema. There are many scenes (too many really) of ships going down, and men trapped underwater. One scene, with an oil slick on fire and men underwater beneath it, is hauntingly filmed, as the men have to make a terrible choice–drown or burn.
The score, by Hans Zimmer, is typical Zimmer–too much by half. He uses a lot of metronomic sounds to ramp up the tension. Sometimes it fits and sometimes it’s overwhelming, as the film is loud enough already.
I was all set to enjoy Dunkirk, but it just didn’t do it for me. It’s just okay.