Christopher Nolan is a director of superlative technical skill, and his new film of the evacuation of DUNKIRK lives up to that billing. However, in his choice to strip it of all historical context, and to keep a close-up on three sets of anonymous character tropes, he has created a film that has no epic sweep; that fails to convey the magnitude of Dunkirk; and that fails to move. Where it works, it works because of fleeting nuanced moments of acting brilliance. But this is no LAWRENCE and he is no Lean: he has failed to combine the epic with the personal.
So, some context, because the film gives you none. (I wonder if this will affect non-British audiences' ability to engage with the film?) We are in the early months of World War Two. Ignoring captured intelligence to German plans, French, Canadian and British and other allied troops have been lured into Belgium by a German feint and have now been encircled and driven back to the French coast. Roughly 340,000 men - the principal strength of the British army - crowded the beach at Dunkirk - a port protected by a mole, or sea wall, from which they could board the large vessels sent to ferry them back across the English channel. In doing so, they were hugely aided by the French forces tangling up the German troops sent to cut them off at the Siege of Lille. They were also hugely aided by Hitler's inexplicable decision to order the Luftwaffe not to pursue the troops.
The evacuation took days, and combined large ships taking people off the Mole with small requisitioned commercial vessels collecting soldiers from the shallows. All the time, the troops subject to aerial assault on the beach and in the water, and the risk of being torpedoes once aboard. The scale of the battle was thus immense - with the RAF flying 3,500 sorties and engaging the Luftwaffe in dogfights away from the beach (hence many soldiers wondering where the fuck they were) - 36 Royal Navy destroyers ferrying men home as well as the Small Ships flotilla - and c340,000 soldiers ultimately evacuated. It was both a great military failure and a success - because as humiliating as the lost Battle of France was, it enabled Britain to survive to fight on with its men and materiel largely intact.
Christopher Nolan makes the decision to avoid all of this explanation, and to give us a Dunkirk that focuses on the personal experiences of the war by land, sea and air. These theatres are inter-cut but take place along different time-scales. The land evacuation takes place over the week, although frankly days merge into each other and I couldn't keep track. The sea rescue takes place over a day and the RAF dogfight takes place over an hour, roughly corresponding to a Spitfire's fuel limit. I rather liked the concept of intercutting the three, and although we do get a cute crossover with the same character appearing in two of the theatres, Nolan doesn't make it too intrusive or incredible.
Where I think his claustrophobic personal approach works best is in the air battles. Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden play RAF Spitfire engaging in dogfights some distance from the beach. With IMAX cameras mounted on modified Yaks, Nolan takes us into the air for some quite spectacular aerial photography. Nonetheless, the downside of this approach is that one gets the impression that the men on the ground are right to ask where the RAF are - that the scale of the aerial assault is minute when it wasn't. I also find it absolutely incredible that a RAF pilot, knowing how desperate the British were for materiel, would risk his plane in the way that Hardy's character does. This utterly took me out of the film.
The sea battle is also done very well from a technical perspective. We get a sense of the claustrophobia of being aboard ship, the shell-shock and the terror of a watery death, especially when combined with lit gasoline. I thought the acting was by far the best in this segment. I very much liked Mark Rylance's quiet earnestness as a civilian sailor sailing to Dunkirk with his son - the quiet communication between the two of them with glances - the profound sympathy toward Cillian Murphy's traumatised rescued RAF pilot. And the scene of soldiers drowning under a fiery sea is one of the most memorable and rightly horrific in the film. But I also had deep concerns with Nolan's portrayal of the naval evacuation. He has Kenneth Branagh's Colonel declare that the Navy is only risking one Destroyer. This is just untrue. There were 36 in use! In general, his character summarises the worst of the writing on the film. He's not a character so much as a Patriotic Reaction Machine. When he gets teary at the sight of the Small Ships as Elgar floats up through the score (superbly done by Hans Zimmer), Nolan is telling us to shed a tear. When he looks concerned at the Luftwaffe flying overhead, this is a cue for us to get concerned. And when at the end he remains in peril to help the French, we are meant to think, ah well, this has been EXCLUSIVELY from the perspective of white male Brits, but never mind, we sorted out the French too. Appallingly crass stuff. Still, this being Nolan, Branagh will probably get an Oscar nom for this nonsense.
Nonetheless, it is on the beach itself that this film ultimately fails. We have small nuanced scenes of brilliance - a soldier decided to commit suicide by walking into the water - or the quietly proud smile of a Royal Engineer who has built a makeshift pier out of trucks - but there is no sense of scale or chaos. According to Nolan, the beach at Dunkirk was filled with about 3 columns of about 200 soldiers neatly waiting to be evacuated, and ducking and turning on cue to the director's megaphone. There's no fear, panic, chaos, disorder at all. There's also no sense that we are dealing with hundreds of thousands of men. Ultimately, then, Nolan has made a gross error. He has given us a film that tries to convey intimacy - without ever naming a character or making a character more than a trope - and he has chosen NOT to convey the epic sweep of battle. Worst of all he has made gross historical simplifications and some outright errors that massively impact our understanding of what is happening. And his refusal to name the enemy as the German army is simply perverse.
DUNKIRK is rated PG-13. The film goes on global release the weekend of July 19th.