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Film Review

‘Dunkirk’ Avoids Politics and Melodrama to Deliver a Powerful Human Survival Story

A scene from Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk." (Screen shot via YouTube)
Allen Barra
Contributor
Allen Barra writes about sports for The Wall Street Journal and regularly contributes to TheAtlantic.com and Salon.com. Barra has authored many books including “Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, The…
Allen Barra

Read Allen Barra’s piece on the historical context of the Dunkirk evacuation here.

If you go to see Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” expecting a war movie—or even an antiwar movie—you’re going to be disappointed. Nolan has said it himself in an interview: “I don’t see it as a war film, I see it as a survival story.”

The battle and evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940 is the greatest story to come out of World War II, and, amazingly, it has been given very little cinematic attention. It was the backdrop for the 1942 Greer Garson vehicle, “Mrs. Miniver,” directed by William Wyler. There was a competent 1958 British production, “Dunkirk,” directed by Leslie Norman, with John Mills, Richard Attenborough and Bernard Lee as the journalist around whom the story is framed. Dunkirk’s most effective rendering was in Joe Wright’s “Atonement,” with James McAvoy as a Tommy (a British soldier) stranded on the beach, staring across the English Channel.

Nolan’s film is not only different from any other ever made on the subject. It’s different from any other film connected to war. If Sir Richard Attenborough had made the movie, it would have been respectable, ponderous and laced with a strong dose of stiff upper lip. If made by Spielberg, it would be painted in broad strokes with primary colors and bolstered with nostalgia and Eisenhower-era patriotism. If directed by the Michael Bay of “Pearl Harbor” … let’s not go there.

Nolan’s “Dunkirk” eschews politics and practically leaves out the point of view of the enemy altogether. (There is scarcely a single close-up of a German soldier in the entire film.) Instead of laboring to make the point that the Germans are people just like us—or would be under the proper circumstances—as in “The Longest Day” or “Saving Private Ryan,” Nolan subtly makes the point that despair, courage and hope aren’t national but human characteristics.

The film opens with a handful of British soldiers walking down the deserted streets of what we quickly learn is the village of Dunkirk. Leaflets are falling from the sky. They are German propaganda with a map showing how hopelessly surrounded the British and still-resisting French were. The actual leaflet the Germans dropped featured the message “La guerre est finie pour vous!” (The war is finished for you). This ingenious device tells the viewer exactly where the soldiers are and what their situation is.

The scene turns out to be just one of three intertwined narratives which ultimately come together to tell the whole story of the battle and evacuation. It’s a device Nolan has used in several of his films, but here it does not seem strained or pretentious. “Dunkirk” may be the first time Nolan has relegated his technique to the service of the material.

And the material needs no artificial embellishment. The story of how hundreds of fishermen, ferry captains, yachtsmen and tugboat skippers rescued more than 335,000 men seems almost incredible. Nolan nudges, rather than pushes, the story along. There is a minimum of dialogue.

The great Tom Hardy as a Spitfire pilot has perhaps six lines to speak and does most of his acting with his eyes and facial muscles. Mark Rylance, the 2016 Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner for “Bridge of Spies,” plays the owner of a small yacht who embarks on the rescue mission with his young son aboard and conveys his emotions in hushed tones that draw one’s ear closer.

Nolan directs without hyperbole. There is surprisingly little action in “Dunkirk,” but the suspense is so heightened that you may not realize it until the film is over. Hans Zimmer, who has dealt out his share of schlock for “Batman v Superman” and one of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, seems inspired when he scores for Nolan. His spare, throbbing background sounds are less music and more an aural rendering of the characters’ subconscious. He may be the first composer capable of reflecting the collective subconscious of hundreds of thousands.

“Dunkirk” may be the first movie about a battle that cuts through the barriers of class and nationality. It’s the first I’ve ever seen about death and survival that doesn’t manipulate audience emotions but connects them with the emotion inherent in the story.

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