Cinematic takes on World War II seem more popular than ever. Recent films have traced events from the Holocaust (Ida, Denial, The Zookeepers Wife), demonstrated the devastating results of the cruelty of Soviet soldiers (The Innocents), portrayed heroes (Hacksaw Ridge, the upcoming Darkest Night about Churchill), or focused on events (Pegasus Bridge). Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk takes us into one extended moment where the will of the English (and French) is pitted against the formidable power of the German military. Surrender or annihilation of the 400,000 British and French troops surrounded by German forces seem like the only possible outcomes. They are surrounded on land, trapped on a beach, with only one place, the mole, where large ships can dock and load those trying to escape. The German air force can play with those lines of soldiers like target practice. The troops have nowhere to hide. The soldiers’ singular focus is to get on a boat. Winning this battle is not an option; getting back to their island home alive is the most they can hope for.

I wonder what purpose these movies serve in our culture. To feel patriotic? To offer a sense of purpose to the destruction of war?

Dunkirk offers no character a backstory or the ability to develop over the course of the narrative. The nonlinear narrative jumbles overlapping events, repeating the same occurrence from the experiences of the few characters we recognize.

The narrative includes three main vantage points: the beach, the air, and the water. Each vantage point has characters to guide us through the experience. The pilots of the Spitfires who try to protect the boats and the beach from the German air force. The older man who takes his small boat and his son, picking up stragglers in the water and loading others from a ship that took a direct hit. A foot soldier and a few comrades who only want to get home, but must keep trying and trying to find a boat that doesn’t get hit and sink. The commanders who try to keep the lines of soldiers moving and who calculate methods to get them off the beach and out to the larger boats.

That leaves the movie, just like the beach, full of people we don’t know and have almost no emotional investment in. What keeps us watching are the relentless escapes from the water as ship after ship slips under the waves, and as the Spitfire pilots try to stop the German bombers. The camera techniques put us in the air evading and firing. We experience the terror of the soldiers trapped in boats as they sink. We have no choice but to keep watching. Tommy, a young British soldier who we meet in the first scene, demonstrates that surviving is ultimately what matters here.

The heroes are the little people, those who take their fishing boats, pleasure craft, and other small boats across the English Channel, each taking a few soldiers back toward safety. More than 330,000 troops were rescued in what Churchill described as a miracle. It is not winning a war, but surviving to try another day. Apparently, the Germans assumed they had control of the trap and were caught off guard by the flotilla of civilian boats making this daring rescue.

Do I recommend this film? It is emotionally distant but full of remarkable cinematic action. But how many times do I need to see the soldiers trying to escape one more sinking ship? This is especially problematic since most of the time I had no idea who these men were. Nolan wants us to see the big picture, but it is hard to get a sense of the big picture if I don’t see the actors as more then extras waiting to die. Do I get a sense of the heroes of war? No, but I have a renewed sense of how badly humans want to survive. Maybe Dunkirk becomes the metaphor for our way of life, just surviving rather than winning. Mr. Dawson, the old man with his boat, offers a calm presence, seeking to help everyone he finds on the long boat trip. He may be the only character that I really connected with in any emotional way.

I think there are better war movies that introduce us to people we connect with and make us care more deeply about the pain and suffering. We may all need to pitch in, but every one of us has a backstory and human connections. That is what makes it worth surviving. To survive with no connections is ultimately not worth the price of a movie ticket. I wonder what purpose these movies serve in our culture. To feel patriotic? To offer a sense of purpose to the destruction of war? To put forward a group of heroes? Or does it serve up a rush of adrenaline?

The cinematography of Dunkirk succeeds in immersing the viewer in the water and in the air. It fails to connect with the people we should want to cheer for. They remain interchangeable characters who are soon lost to us as our attention shifts to the next sinking ship.


All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.