The problem with Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk”

I am not usually a fan of war films, and I typically won’t go to the cinema to see them. Don’t get me wrong, I think many war films are excellent, but I find the whole experience of seeing them at the cinema a bit too traumatic. Some reviewers, however, have called Dunkirk Christopher Nolan’s best film yet. It was also rated PG 12. So obviously I had to go and see it.

Dunkirk is a beautifully shot film. The shots of the beaches are stunnigly beautiful. Hans Zimmer provides a haunting musical score, which keeps everyone on the edge of their seat. The soldiers flee in silence pierced only by the ticking of the clock and a frightened violin.

The acting is also excellent. Fionn Whitehead is Tommy,  a soldier struggling to board every single possible ship off Dunkirk, Mark Rylance is a civilian captain coming to the rescue, and Tom Hardy is an RAF pilot who is trying to save both those two from the German bombers (an honorary mention goes to Kenneth Branagh who plays a minor part as a commander of the navy).

The linking of the plots is very clever: the plot on the beach takes place during a week, the plot of the civilian boat in a single day, and the RAF plot during a single hour. It can be confusing at times, especially when we see a ship sinking at night and then we cut back to day…. Only to return to the night again a couple of minutes later. I did not figure the varying duration time of the intertwined plots on my own – I just had a look at Mark Kermode’s review.  Having said that, I don’t think the plot jumping interfered too much in my experience of the film. Something else did. And annoyingly, I can’t quite put my finger on what it was. Let me try some possible reasons.

I have been reading in the English speaking media about why the French are annoyed by Nolan’s portrayal of Dunkirk. And I would have to agree that Nolan’s interest in the role or even fate of the French army is minimal. Basically, what he cares about is that the British get to go home. That 40,000 Frenchmen have sacrificed their lives to get them out is neither here nor there.  The review that made the British press so upset has a completely valid point.

The other point the French review in Le Monde makes is that Dunkirk is primarily a film of ‘survival’. And that is absolutely right. The war film it reminded me the most was Roman Polański’s The Pianist – except that Polański’s The Pianist was a story of a civilian and not the British army. I have been told that it is good to see that film does not glorify war… But I have at times been exasperated to see how Tommy, the ‘hero’ who is stuck in Dunkirk, elbows his ways into ships he is not supposed to be on in the first place, with no regard for the survival of others stuck on the same beach. There is a bit of me (possibly the bit of me that did rowing) that thinks he’s an inconsiderate, useless and insubordinate soldier. Cough. I know that’s not the point. I know he’s an everyman figure.

But is he really though? Most of the people at Dunkirk probably wanted to behave like him. But they didn’t. They obeyed orders. Why couldn’t we have seen them and their terror and fear instead?

I will just hand you a quote about Dunkirk from the Encyclopedia Britannica here

The evacuation could not have been achieved but for the air cover provided by fighter aircraft from the English coast, the indomitable efforts of the seacraft, and the good discipline of the troops.”

I definitely preferred watching the civilian boats coming to rescue the soldiers, not to mention the RAF pilots covering them, than Tommy whimpering that he just wants to go home, yet again. So does everyone else on this beach, Tommy. You’re not special. You don’t particularly deserve to be on that boat more than anybody else.

I don’t mean to say, as a Russian newspaper apparently did ( I can’t check as I don’t speak Russian), that Nolan’s Dunkirk is a celebration of cowardice. There is definitely British bravery displayed in the film: by the civilian boats and the RAF. The film just happens not to show the bravery of the troops stuck at Dunkirk. Which is annoying, because most of the troops were brave enough not to panic and to do as they were told– unlike Tommy and his friends. Otherwise the evacuation never would have worked.

I have to say I did not enjoy this film as much as I expected to. It is beautifully made, and an impressive experience to behold at the cinema – but perhaps this review will give you a better idea of what the film is like – and therefore you will be far less annoyed by it.


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3 thoughts on “The problem with Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk”

  1. I didn’t perceive the movie as treating Tommy as a hero. Yes, he was scared, and yes, he acted out of cowardice. Intentionally so, I think, no Nolan’s part. It stands in stark contrast with the actions of the others, thus highlighting their bravery. The line from the trailer–“There’s no hiding from this, son. We have a job to do.”–is what sold me on the movie originally.

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