What I'm Watching: Dunkirk
One of my gifts this Christmas was a blu-ray of Christopher Nolan’s most recent feature, Dunkirk, which was released in theaters on July 21, 2017, and I had been excited to see for months beforehand. I could not count how many times I watched the trailers of my own accord or in the attempts to get other people as psyched about this film as I was. It seems an odd thing to be “excited” for a war movie but the main reason I was aside from it being made by Nolan is its representation on the silver screen of a chapter in World War II history not widely discussed. I will say this now for those who have not seen in the film or heard this event referred to in school, mild spoilers ahead.
Long before storming the beach of Normandy, the beach at Dunkirk was the focus of British military forces during a forced evacuation of over 400,000 troops retreating back across the English Channel. As Nolan explained in press interviews for the film, crossing on a sound vessel is difficult enough in rough conditions without the prospect of German U-Boats in the water or fighters in the air which is exactly what these men were facing in 1940. The situation seemed so dire that Prime Minister Winston Churchill himself expected no more than 10% of those men stranded to make it back to Great Britain. When the call was sent out to requisition civilian boats of any size after days of attempted military action, it was met with an unbelievable response and several thousand men found their way home in the company of those brave civilians. Nolan said in his research he discovered one man even made the journey in a canoe because he had one seat available to take a soldier home. This patriotism was from then on referred to as the Dunkirk Spirit and is still referred to by some today.
Personally, I loved the film from the casting to the creative decision made in regards to the timeline and editing - which apparently was a point of confusion for some and a point of contention for others like my brother because he felt it provided too many spoilers that a linear telling of the story would not have done. The film covers three different perspectives which it lays out in the first several minutes: the beach which takes place over a week, the sea which covers the timespan of a day, and the air which takes place in a single hour. Cutting these three durations together over the runtime helps to increase the tension, the suspense you feel as a viewer. If a more literal telling of the story's timeline had been taken, we as the audience would have been left waiting on the beach with the soldiers for days and then introduced to the civilian sailors, and later still to the pilots flying the Spitfires and while for the sake of the typical rising and falling action diagrams I'm sure most of us are used to it would have sufficed, that was not the intention of those behind the camera or in the editing room. Why? Because they want you to be on the edge of your seat the entire time; to be flying by the seat of your pants because that's the type of experience these poor boys were enduring trapped in a situation they could never have anticipated not knowing what would happen from one moment to the next.
Which brings me to my next point. As I mentioned before, there were those who were not altogether too happy with the diversion from linear storytelling in Dunkirk. All you have to do is type "Dunkirk Movie Review" into the YouTube search bar to find out just how much some hated it and the primary argument I heard online and among individuals that I know personally was it's lack of character development. Again, I believe this is entirely done on purpose. The first few minutes of the movie intercut with info cards setting the stage of the situation these soldiers are in and from then on, we accompany Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) in his attempts to escape hell on earth. I can hear some people saying in their heads, "That kid's name was Tommy? I didn't even know that." and I am not surprised by that by any means. We aren't told once before the credits what his name was. But perhaps what you didn't notice was that not one of these boys on the beach ever introduces themselves to anyone else. Now, why is that? It's because who they were standing to was the least of their concerns. There would be no discussions of personal lives regarding backstory or hopes and dreams for the future when the German army had them surrounded and their main priority was getting off that beach. We as the audience are meant to share this experience alongside these lads, to put ourselves in their boots for an hour and forty-five minutes and I left the cinema thinking the filmmakers had done a marvelous job of it.
Also, a fun little Easter Egg: Sir Michael Caine, star of Battle of Britain (1969) provided the voice for Fortis Leader. His participation was uncredited but his voice was, to me, immediately recognizable, and a hat tip to earlier World War II focused films.
What did you think of the film? Did watching it make you curious about the event itself? Do you have any have any movie recommendations you think I should check out? Let me know in the comments below!