- By Thomas E. RicksThomas 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 email@example.com.
By Doug Jackson
Best Defense guest respondent
“There’s little prelude, no set up of the characters… this is not a good quality in a war film.” In his review last week of Dunkirk, Best Defense’s war movie critic, “Hunter,” made it clear that Christopher Nolan’s storytelling left him wanting. He concluded “only a few touch points in the entire film evoke an emotional response.”
I read that and found myself wondering: Hey, did we see the same film?
“Hunter” states that Dunkirk is “anti-war in that is unlike most war films,” while I would argue the reason it is unlike most war films is the very reason it is so effective today. Saving Private Ryan still holds distinction for it’s brutal realism in depicting injury and death, while Thin Red Line gave insight to a soldier’s introspection through voiceovers. These elements have since become staples of subsequent war films. Dunkirk is divergent in that there was almost no blood at all, nor did we hear soldiers asking life’s bigger questions.
From the beginning Nolan seems to say “there is no time to waste, I need you to catch up and stick with me.” The opening scenes of the film are no exception: We see a group of young British soldiers ambushed by an unseen enemy. In their attempt to flee all but one are shot or killed, and we are introduced to one our main characters whose backstory will never be told. I thought to myself “of course, where he came from, who his parents are, who is waiting for him to come home — none of that matters.” It is painfully inconsequential. With Dunkirk we are not burdened with assigned characters whose backstories are continually spelled out for us. Instead, we are presented with scenes like the one of a lone soldier calmly stripping off his gear and wading into the surf to his death. We know nothing about him, nonetheless we understand how grave the situation must be if someone commits such an act while others simply watch. As an audience we are given space to observe, to contemplate arresting visuals without dialogue.
Though the overall tone of the film could be described as a high note of anxiety inducing suspense held for what must be a record setting length of time, this is necessary for the subsequent “touch points” “Hunter” describes. This is our base. From there the fate of the evacuation is never made certain with our hopes being raised and quickly crushed multiple times over. This is not particularly enjoyable but maybe it is something long overdue for a war film? Previous war epics have given us a sort of privileged spectatorship, one that details the hopes, dreams, and families left behind in war; Nolan’s Dunkirk gives us no such vantage point and is better for it.
In regards to the civilian boatman, played by Mark Rylance, I found his line about the generational burden of war inconsequential compared to his defense of the first soldier he picked up by describing him as “shell shocked,” that he “was not himself.” Is this not the most efficient and compassionate way to describe someone who has been hurt by war?
Nolan has proven himself committed to staying ahead of an increasingly sophisticated audience. And for that reason “Hunter” may be disappointed in the future of storytelling as it leans towards pared down dialogue with experimental scores that prefer the unconscious over the literal.
Doug Jackson is a Marine infantry veteran of the Iraq War who studied film after his enlistment. He works as a full time photographer and veteran advocate, with a focus on improving the military to civilian transition.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons