I know, I know, you’re jaded. You’ve seen it all in hundreds, nay, thousands of movies. War movies, survival movies, hanging-on-by-the skin-of-your-teeth movies, abandon-hope movies, never-lose-hope movies. You’ve also seen admirable or despicable actions from soldiers, officers, and ordinary civilians. But trust me, you have never seen all of that brought together in a package such as Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk.”
“Dunkirk” or “Dunkerque” is the name of a town in Northern France, near the Calais of present disrepute. In May 1940, the Allied forces of France, Britain, and Canada are caught between air attacks by Nazi Germany Wermacht planes and sea attacks by German warships. Through the heroic efforts of military command, Churchill’s direct orders and supervision and the hapless soldiers’ guts, most of the 400,000 Brits, give or take some 30,000, manage to make it back across the Channel through any means available, some as flimsy as fishing boats.
In Christopher Nolan’s retelling, the story is entirely about British troops, whereas the French and Canadian shared in the harrowing event. That and the fact that not every heroic story is told understandably made for a source of great disappointment for the very few participants still alive. This has been one among many criticisms addressed to “Dunkirk.” Others are that major figures are not portrayed accurately or, in some cases, even named, or that the director, with his full immersion technique on a breathless Hans Zimmer sound track, is content with throwing image after image at the subjugated viewer, close-ups sparing no detail of the faces of men about to die and wide angles giving us beaches with the ant-like formations of thousands of men about to die or suffocating shots of angry waves submerging men about to die.
Well, yes and no. Not everybody has to give us “Saving Private Ryan” with precise storyline and recurring, clearly-defined characters, or allow us to follow the arc of their story. This is an entirely different kind of movie experience. For Nolan, this story, as skillfully told and edited as it is, does not need a clear narrative line, not every runt can deliver dialogue while drowning or being caught in the flames from burning gasoil nor dodging torpedoes. He doesn’t give us powerful emotions or great words to be some day carved in stone, though we do get a number of Churchill quotes (but would any WWII movie with Brits in it not have a smattering of those? The man spoke and wrote nonstop, words born with their quotation marks already attached.) And the in-you-face score mentioned above, while not subtle, is the perfect complement to a unique movie experience that leaves you shaken to the core and aghast at the concept of disposable armies, men left to fend off for themselves, their only driver the determination to survive.