Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.
It’s that time of year once again. The Oscar nominations have happened and, as I posted a few weeks ago, there are a bunch more movies on my lists. Dunkirk is one of the more heavily nominated films, even if it’s not hugely represented in my pet categories. It’s hardly a shock that it garnered a bunch of technical nominations and the tremendous Hans Zimmer score was almost certainly a lock for a nomination. It’s also worth noting that as of this writing, Christopher Nolan is the smart-money bet for winning Best Director. It’s also worth noting that despite Nolan’s storied and critically-acclaimed career, this is his first nomination.
Anyone with even a little bit of World War II knowledge will be able to guess quickly that Dunkirk is the story of the mass exodus/retreat by the British Expeditionary Force in 1940. Having been pushed back literally to the coast by the Wehrmacht, the British and French troops stood waiting to be evacuated while the German military squeezed ever tighter. It remains one of the more curious military decisions that the German army allowed so much of the BEF to successfully get back to Britain.
Dunkirk, probably wisely, does not attempt to tell the entire sweeping story of the Dunkirk withdrawal. Instead, it focuses on specific stories, giving us the full tale from multiple perspectives. This is both a strength and a weakness of the film. It’s a clear positive because it does give us essentially the entire story without being overwhelming. We see the plight of the men on the beach, the struggle to find a ship back to England, a bit of the air battle over the beaches, and the work of the ordinary British citizens who sailed to Dunkirk in their personal private small craft to bring home the troops. As much as it can, it tells the complete story, at least from the Allied side.
But this is a weakness because, in trying to tell a complete story, it doesn’t tell all of the stories that completely. Dunkirk has an excellent cast that includes Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, and Cillian Murphy, but we spend very little time with any of them. Since the film moves back and forth between the different stories happening at Dunkirk, none of the stories are filled with a great deal of depth. What this means is that at what is one of the most damaged, difficult, and emotional moments in the history of the British Empire, the film feels almost clinical.
There are three main stories that interact in places. In one, troops attempt to find ways out of France and back to the UK. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Alex (Harry Styles, most famous as a member of One Direction), and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), who has a secret when it comes to his attempt to leave France. These three, along with a number of other troops, have difficulty not just finding a ship to take them home, but finding one that isn’t attacked by the Luftwaffe and sunk, putting them back on the beach. A second story concerns a trio of Spitfire pilots including Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy), who are doing their best to keep the skies as clear as possible for their troops. The third main story has Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) along with Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) sailing to Dunkirk to rescue troops. Along the way, they encounter trouble in the shape of an unnamed shipwrecked soldier (Cillian Murphy), rescue Collins from the sea, and eventually take on our troops from the first story as well. Overseeing all of this is Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), whose job appears to be making sure as many men get rescued as possible.
I genuinely find Dunkirk hard to judge. It is beautifully acted and the story is compelling. From a historical perspective, there’s nothing about this that isn’t fascinating on its face. But I want to have a deeper connection with the stories and especially with the people. There are moments that happen here that are plot-designed rather than natural within the story (this is particularly true as the story impacts George), and I find that frustrating, too. Tom Hardy, who has an oxygen mask over his face in his cockpit, is virtually unrecognizable through the whole film, and is little more than just a pilot. When terrible things happen to the characters, our emotional reaction is based far more on something bad happening in general than something bad happening to someone we specifically care about.
I have no doubt that Dunkirk will contend for a number of its Oscars, and it should. It wouldn’t surprise me if Nolan walked away with the Best Director Oscar, and I’m not sure he shouldn’t. But for as much as I want to be emotionally connected to this film, I simply can’t be. Dunkirk holds me too far at arm’s length.
Why to watch Dunkirk: It is probably the most interesting military story of the last 100 years.
Why not to watch: It feels so detached in so many ways.