Dunkirk (2017)

Dir. Christopher Nolan. Starring Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy

Spoilers follow

Dunkirk is bent on undoing its emotional work through its structure. The movie is already bound, even at a week old, to reach Memento levels of discussion of its timeline. Three plots intersect over the course of the film. One focuses on a week with Tommy (Whitehead), an English infantryman who experiments with several ways to get off the beach at Dunkirk; Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Winnant (James D’Arcy) are officers trying to manage the evacuation from Dunkirk as well as they can despite the bleak future they foresee. Another focuses on a day with Mr. Dawson (Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), who take their boat to Dunkirk to help evacuate as many soldiers as possible; the last keys in on Farrier (Hardy) for an hour, whose Spitfire outlasts the two piloted by his wingmen. Each plot is striking in its own fashion; there’s a great deal to recommend each one separately, although I can’t say they all hang together once they’re forced to do so. The RAF pilots, although necessary to the plot (and of course to the Dunkirk evacuation), are fundamentally different from the drafted soldiers and the bourgeois folks just trying to do right by their country, and we lose grit and grime in the pristine dogfights they have. The most inexplicable plot element of Dunkirk, as well as the meat of the self-defeating “we need to explain why this incredibly important thing is important, thus making it less clear that it is in fact incredibly important” dialogue, occurs with the Dawsons. And Tommy’s plot, as gritty as Farrier’s isn’t, takes up far less time than it might have to achieve what might have been a deadening, scarring effect on the viewer. Each is very different in tone, all of them connect in small ways, and they do not a single long film make. In short, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, I think Dunkirk would have been served better by splitting itself telling a fuller, better story as three movies on the short side (seventy-five to ninety minutes each) and embracing the characters rather than the story. That’s how you know Christopher Nolan isn’t writing this review.

I thought the scenes with Tommy and the other souls he picks up – “Gibson” (Aneurin Barnard), Alex (Harry Styles), and some other desperate kids – depicted the hopelessness and terror of war well. Whitehead is a basically anonymous person, which makes him the perfect choice to play an anonymous soldier among 400,000 of his nameless fellows. Dunkirk is one of the most stirring events in the history of modern warfare, but it reveals a fundamental truth about battle in the starkest fashion: it isn’t glorious. We remember it because hundreds of thousands of men weren’t imprisoned or killed by Nazis; they simply retreated, leaving France and its people to despotic rule for years. No one knew it better than Churchill, who said, “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.” Tommy and his group have a corollary in a man whose name is never given, and whom the credits refer to as the “shivering soldier” (Cillian Murphy). He was an officer who appears to have been one of the few survivors of one of the destroyed ships out of Dunkirk, and whose shell shock is interpreted by Peter as cowardice. Tommy and Gibson and Alex never quite reach shell shock, but they make decisions out of their profound distress. Alex nearly whips himself and a few other soldiers into killing Gibson when he refuses to speak; Alex assumes that he’s a German, but Tommy manages to prolong Gibson’s life long enough for him to reveal that he is, in fact, a Frenchman in English uniform (thus the surname), as determined to get off the beach as his peers.

Among the men on the beach, there are only three moments that we might count as “heroic.” Tommy standing up for Gibson is one; Gibson opens a door on a sinking ship that allows some men, Tommy and Alex included, to swim to freedom; in a moment more important for plot details than for moving the film, Bolton refuses to leave Dunkirk because he intends to help get French soldiers out as well. The best moments with Bolton in the film are the ones where Branagh looks like he might drown himself in solidarity with the many men he’s seen drowned, blown to pieces, burned alive. Tommy is too intent on living to ever give up on a chance to sail home. Bolton does not have any of those pretensions for himself, nor does he have much reason to believe in them based on the intelligence he receives from a rear admiral. The goal is to get somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 men off the beaches of Dunkirk; there are 400,000 teeming downheartedly on the sand. Tommy’s dogged pursuit of life is inspiring, I guess, but I’m far more taken with the tone in Bolton’s voice when he says “you can practically see it from here.” See what? he’s asked. “Home,” he says. The painfully predictable moment where he looks through binoculars and is asked what he sees through it – we know he sees the boats, like Dawson’s Moonstone – and replies, “Home” almost ruins the effect. Almost.

The best and worst sequences of the movie are on board the Moonstone, a small yacht carrying Dawson, his son, and his son’s friend, George (Barry Keoghan), who comes along for the ride to Dunkirk at the last moment and over Peter’s objections. After rescuing the shivering soldier from the sinking wreckage of a much bigger boat, he rapidly proves to be trouble. When he discovers that he’s on a boat headed for Dunkirk, he tries to physically take Dawson away from the wheel, calling him a “weekend sailor” and telling him that a trip to Dunkirk is certain death. Rylance is an incredible actor, poached from the stage like Gielgud and Richardson and Olivier before him, but not even those three men could have saved a line like, “There’s no hiding from this, son. We have a job to do,” or, indeed, any of his vague lines about duty and men barely more than boys dying on the beach or not having a home to go back to if they lose the war. Rylance uses the same toolkit that won him an Oscar playing Rudolf Abel in Bridge of Spies, but like everyone else in the movie he leaves humor out of his finished work. The soldier tries to commandeer the vessel by force; Peter and George manage to pull him off Dawson, but in the struggle George falls belowdecks, hits his head on some exposed metal, goes blind, and dies “heroically,” citing his wish to show all those adults in his life that he could do something big enough to get in the paper. On returning home to Weymouth, Peter and his father pick up the newspaper and see George’s picture there and a short article prompted by a tip from Peter himself. These are empty scenes at best and distracting scenes at worst. Death is everywhere at Dunkirk, as evidenced brutally in the first five minutes of the film and then again and again for the next one hundred and fifteen. What’s another teenager?

The scene that works best, a scene strong enough to almost make you believe that patriotism is healthy, comes when a destroyer filled with English soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk already sees a small flotilla of boats – pleasure ships, small skiffs, fishing boats and trawlers, and, interestingly, a tall ship with red sails – headed to France. They cheer. The civilians on board the little boats are as phlegmatic as Phileas Fogg. There are no sentences spoken, no words beyond the vocalizations of shouts and huzzahs. And the viewer can make the conclusions that Mr. Dawson tried to force down our throats earlier. These are people who never dreamed of touching the war with their own two hands, but who feel strongly enough about the lives of strangers tied to them by nothing more than national origin to risk their own lives to help. It is a stunning, valiant moment, one of the first times in a long time we’ve been given the space to think during the movie, and the movie is rewarded for that pace. Why Mr. Dawson must make his own speeches like he’s auditioning for a cut-rate Henry V is beyond me; it’s as if the movie doesn’t trust us to understand it, and has to give us different ways to do so rather than saving its power for this blow to the heart.

The scene where Collins (Jack Lowden) nearly drowns because he can’t get out of the cockpit of his Spitfire is maybe the most suspenseful of the film. The movie would have benefited from him drowning, really, but I’m not sure it has the stomach for that level of brutality; no one has ever mistaken Nolan for Elem Klimov or Bela Tarr. I thought for sure going into this movie that casting recognizable stars – Branagh, Styles, Hardy, Murphy, even Rylance – in prominent roles would total the effect. And in the case of Styles and Murphy, that’s basically the case. (Alas. Murphy’s very good, but depending on what you’re into, you can’t not see the Scarecrow or the rich dude from Inception or the good guy from The Wind That Shakes the Barley.) Rylance has such a plain face that he works as Dawson, despite his lines. Branagh has all of Rylance’s good press and more, not to mention a handsomer face. And Hardy, as everyone knows, wears that mask over the bottom half of his face (and a visor over the top half) for much of the movie. It’s brilliant. As often as we joke about whether Hardy will ever appear in a movie with his entire head again (The Dark Knight Rises, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Dunkirk) or speak understandably ever again (more TDKR plus The Revenant and his TV show Taboo, but definitely not Dunkirk), I think think this performance is as good as the movie can hope for from its biggest name. Hardy, viewed basically from shoulders up for so much of the movie, is hidden from our sight and thus hides from his own position as “movie star.” His eyes do so much work in this movie; much of his speech is more like voiceover than anything else because we can’t watch his lips move while he speaks. I think it’s an extraordinarily clever role for Hardy, even if fails to fit well into the scope of the movie itself.

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