“Dunkirk,” written, directed, and co-produced by Christopher Nolan (with Emma Thomas), is the best theatrical release in a long time, premiering on July 13, 2017 in the UK and USA. It has been amply rewarded with an impressive take at the box office and deserves the critical acclaim it has received.
As so many films of today, “Dunkirk” is based on a true story, here, World War II, in 1940, after the invasion of France by Nazi Germany, where 300,000 Allied soldiers retreated to the seaside city of Dunkirk, fearfully but hopefully awaiting evacuation.
The story is told from three perspectives: land, sea, and air. From whatever perspective, it’s hard to imagine how the scenes could be shot any better. Airborne shots were remarkably stomach-churning; seaborne shots, equally breathtaking.
This historical event was bigger than any character Nolan could composite, so the short 76-page script wasn’t bogged down with backstories or character arcs. Indeed, the dialog was minimal, leaving the audience to gasp, and fear, what the men there at the time surely did. Hans Zimmer’s score admirably fills in any interstitial blanks.
The ensemble cast, including Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hardy, all succeeded in captivating their audience, aided by good direction and absolutely exquisite editing.
“Dunkirk” isn’t without detractors, however. The criticism leveled by some reviewers fall generally into three categories, none of which I think are particularly convincing.
First, some claimed, “Dunkirk” fell short in the drama department. True enough we know how it all ends, but, for example, the ticking clock required to conserve airplane fuel in the dogfights between the Royal Air Force and Luftwaffe above the sea en route to Dunkirk made the one hour flight time of the pilots chilling. So, too, was the necessary withdrawal of destroyers and fighter planes from battle to defend Britain against a possible invasion.
The film is meant to be an immersive cinematographic experience. There is no character development or a surprise twist, but to say “Dunkirk” isn’t dramatic is to miss the point. The event itself was, and it was artfully depicted here.
The second criticism, and a somewhat fair one, I think, is that the good guys and bad guys weren’t always clearly identified. In fact, neither Churchill or Hitler are depicted. British colours or swastikas could have plastered the film as propaganda symbols, but Nolan chose to make it more subtle and less political.
No doubt, this decision was in part due to the fact that national governments, including France and the Netherlands, provided generous tax credits (rebates) for filming.
And, of course, there’s the sensibilities of the international box office to consider, not just American or British ones.
Thirdly, reviewers have scolded “Dunkirk” for its non-inclusive cast (read: white males). While race- and gender-bendering might be appreciated creatively in experimental live theatre productions, in the serious and expensive business of film making, Nolan was wise to not fall into that Koolaid bowl.
The fact is, most of those involved were scared-shitless young white men. Pretending otherwise would defy credulity and merely be an exercise in virtue-signaling.
Nolan may have tried to avoid controversy in this film, but he did so even-handedly and measuredly, and for that, I do not fault his decisions at all.
I don’t rate with stars. Instead, I use the simple method of saying whether or not a flick was worth a Hamilton, or the price of a theater ticket.
This was definitely worth a Hamilton.
And, I’d posit, an award.