Best Defense

“Dunkirk”: A curious war film

“Dunkirk” isn't anti-war in the traditional sense; it's an anti-war film in that it is unlike most war films.



By “Hunter”
Best Defense war movie reviewer

Dunkirk isn’t anti-war in the traditional sense; it’s an anti-war film in that it is unlike most war films. There’s little prelude, no set up of the characters, no exposition-laden episodes in quiet, strategic war rooms. Director Christopher Nolan just jumps into the fight with mostly silent characters. Some find this refreshing, but I find it inhospitable. The problem is that there’s such little characterization that there’s even less emotion, beyond fear. Only a few touch points in the entire film evoke an emotional response, and this is not a good quality in a war film, at least for me. It’s antiseptic.

The best example I can give lies in the heroism of one Spitfire pilot who remains covered by his mask and helmet throughout the film. He’s an automaton, battling the Luftwaffe and a broken gas gauge. (He’s also a Richtofen-caliber combatant who never fails to end up behind his opponents, and achieves more on glide path than almost any other pilot who isn’t named Sully, but I’ll let that slide.). Only in the final frames do we see that he is a relatively famous actor — at least in Nolan films. And finally we get some emotion and pathos to go with it.

From a military perspective, there’s not much to complain about — beyond the preternatural skills of the two or three Spitfire pilots we see. Everything is realistically portrayed. The fear is palpable. The horrors of many sinking ships, which a handful of unlucky soldiers experience repeatedly, is terrifying, and reminds me why being a landlubber is a good thing. Certainly “Ducky” or “USAF Pilot” (two frequent commenters on this blog) might appreciate the nuances of the film more than I. One noteworthy bit of trivia: At least twelve of the actual small boats shown were repeating their role at the real Dunkirk evacuation for the benefit of the film.

Now a few words about Nolan. He has a habit of toying with timelines in his movies, which I enjoy. Memento was his first film to draw real critical accolades, in part because of its reliance upon a time-twisted story, which is still deemed remarkable. The Prestige, Inception, and Interstellar are other Nolan films that do an excellent job of interweaving timelines through space and time. This is a strength in Dunkirk as he overlays the week on the ground, day on the sea, and hour in the air.

Nolan’s time manipulations are appreciated more than his controversial use of music and sound. He has a habitual relationship with Hans Zimmer. Zimmer does some great work but Nolan forces his composer to extremes. I find examples like Interstellar‘s organ enticing, but Inception (braaaaam) was insistent, annoying, and worthy of mockery. So it goes with Dunkirk. Zimmer’s soundtrack is loud, dirge-like, and oppressive. Again, we only get a few moments of relief and boldness, mostly at the end. My friend left the theater immediately, complaining of a headache driven by the sound and the frenetic ballet of the aerial battles. So be forewarned.

Finally, for me, the highlight of the film was the civilian, played by Mark Rylance, who took it upon himself to steer his pleasure craft to the French coastline to rescue his fellow countrymen. This old man seems to be the moral center of the film. He has his reasons for his great courage, conveyed in the final reel, but I found his one quote the most compelling — for reasons most Best Defenders will recognize. Midway across the Channel he is asked by a shell-shocked soldier, why he is risking death to press on to Dunkirk. His response is one for the ages. “Men my age dictate this war. Why should we be allowed to send our children into it?” Enough said.

Is Dunkirk a good film? Technically, yes. Is it a good war film? Technically, yes. But it lacks the characters that would convey a beating heart. Like the valiant pilot, the film goes about its business mechanically, professionally, without emotion. Pay the matinee price to experience the vision and the sound, but be prepared to feel the same emptiness one gets an hour after eating Chinese food. (But I still cried at the end, damn you dauntless Supermarine pilot, damn you.)

“Hunter” is a Army Reserve infantry colonel. While he’s flown in aircraft, jumped from airplanes, and commanded armored land yachts across rolling countryside, he’s also gotten sick on the world’s largest cruise ship and damn near every other sea vessel he’s been on. His reviews have absolutely nothing to do with the Department of Defense.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola