The Castrated History of, “Dunkirk”

Watching a movie is not a neutral act. You can prove this by simply observing the ways people center their livelihoods around them. You see it in how minorities clamor for representation within multi-million dollar franchises, how we award (or disapprove of) arthouse and “indie” flicks featuring “oscar bait” and other subjects not represented in the modern blockbuster, and even just by walking past that one curmudgeon quoting Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden while slipping a roofie inside a woman’s water bottle. The movies are a part of people’s lives because they deal with humanity, big or small, in different ways. Which is why it is especially important to scrutinize historical war movies. Like the title of this essay says, Christopher Nolan and company’s “Dunkirk,” based on the British Dunkirk evacuation during World War II, will be scrutinized. “Dunkirk” centers itself on a true story of the British Dunkirk military evacuation, in which Winston Churchill commanded the British populace to try to rescue marooned soldiers from an ongoing assault by the German Nazi army, and goes into the short and brutish lives of its characters to add up to a grand narrative of despair and eventual bittersweet triumph.

But even with this motive, the movie grapples with, and succumbs to, the idea of a war movie as being… well, a movie. Meaning that, as much as it proports to be speaking the truth in its own way, it is ultimately limited by the material conditions of present times and the decisions made by their respective collaborators, in the name of business disguised as art-making. “Dunkirk,” and other war movies like it, never fully succeeds in addressing the history it centers, because to do so would not reduce the war effort to mere spectacle. The fact that movies are beholden to the idea that they must be entertaining first and foremost is what prevents the Western war movie from being anything more than a recruitment tool, a trumpet for romanticized nationalism, and a vehicle for shallow sentimentality, guaranteeing that with re-contexualizations of history like “Dunkirk,” the so-called Western World will only end up repeating the errors of the past, or worse.

Having said that, here’s “Dunkirk,” written and directed by Christopher Nolan, with cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema, edited by Lee Smith, scored by Hans Zimmer, and with production design by Nathan Crowley. The movie starts out with an uneasy calm, in which British soldiers go through a small town looking for supplies before being bombarded by Nazi propaganda posters and eventually gunfire. One soldier (played by Fionn Whitehead) survives, going through a line of French soldiers before encountering the rest of the British army and huddling together with another survivor (played by Damien Bonnard), struggling to escape to a boat while being showered by Nazi bullets and bombs. The viewer is then switched to the point of view of a few RAF fighter pilots (one played by Tom Hardy) trying to destroy enemy fighters, and then to the point of view of a middle-class British family (lead by a father played by Mark Rylance) trying to rescue a few soldiers using just a small boat. To further add to the scope and complexity of this story, each section has a title card stating that they have their own place in a timeline, with the family story taking place over the course of one day, the RAF pilots one hour, and the fleeing armymen one week. And the order of these stories goes back and forth, sometimes a portion of what is actually the beginning of the story plays at the middle of one story, and other people, like Commander Bolton (played by Kenneth Branagh) and a traumatized soldier (played by Cillian Murphy), are introduced into a weaving narrative where everyone struggles to do good while also heading home.

In the chaos of war, and Christopher Nolan and company’s moviemaking craft, this all get jumbled into a mass of violence, loss, and finally a sense of hope, with a direct quotation of Winston Chruchill bookending a tragic, complicated, and heroic event within British history and World War II. A charge that gets levied at Christopher Nolan is how detached his directorial efforts often are from pizzaz and the inner life of his characters. But at first, such a cold, exacting vision works to this movie’s advantage. When the movie opens with the aforementioned struggle of the British soldiers, leading to the attempted escape by one survivor and many others to a boat, it does so with a heavy use of close handheld camera shots. The viewer doesn’t get a wide establishing shot until after 15 minutes of desperate chaos, and the dialogue is barely intelligible most of the time thanks to the noisy sound design, but the movie succeeds in immersing one in a frightening, true-life war situation. That is, until you realize that the movie portrays this true-life carnage without blood or guts.

“Dunkirk” undercuts its own posturing on the struggles of this moment in British military history and World War II by rendering a lot of the carnage into a series of cut-aways, sand, smoke, and water. It is to the movie’s credit that said moments still work on a visceral level, thanks to expert editing and sound design, but it unfortunately brings to attention that for all of the movies dedication to practical effects and old-fashioned moviemaking as championed by Christopher Nolan and company, it only goes so far to communicate the perils of this tragic moment in history and then sacrifices emotional and visceral truth in service of making a product with a “PG-13” rating so that it can be seen by multiple audiences. Yes, Christopher Nolan said the following when answering questions about why this is the case:

“All of my big blockbuster films have been PG-13. It’s a rating I feel comfortable working with totally. Dunkirk is not a war film. It’s a survival story and first and foremost a suspense film. So while there is a high level of intensity to it, it does not necessarily concern itself with the bloody aspects of combat, which have been so well done in so many films. We were really trying to take a different approach and achieve intensity in a different way. I would really like lots of different types of people to get something out of the experience.”

In the above quote, Nolan simply says that he is trying to make a movie that a lot of people can get into, but in a story as tied to British war history as the Dunkirk evacuation, that inevitably means watering down the tragic and brutal truth in order to serve a larger audience. First of all, what does Nolan mean by “lots of different types of people?” How, exactly, does one make a movie for those types of people? Does that really mean having to forego certain kinds of content or depictions? And why should certain things not be shown? It all rests on a purtaintical idea of politeness and restraint that, while it may make for a wide and easy launching pad for conversation, is too general to affect anyone or propel anyone to action. When Nolan says, “Dunkirk is not a war film. It’s a survival story and first and foremost a suspense film,” it begs the question: why make it such a thing? Certainly there is something universal in war itself, namely the global conditions that have existed since these events occurred, and the intersections thereof. But the movie does away with this until Winston Churchill is mentioned, and then the movie just ends. A false note ending a sanitized story of terror.

Making, “Dunkirk” into a mere survival story filmed with IMAX film cameras may make for a visceral experience, but it reduces the very real sociopolitical aspects of the event into a loud game of Hide and Seek from the Nazis. While Nolan and company’s hearts and minds may be in the right place, the end result is a unaffecting failure lead by a creative mindset in which tidy sentiment take precedence over the gruesome truth, and that the, “How” is more important than the, “What”, “Who”, and “Why”. It’s history flattened by money grubbing disguised as auteurist vision-making,  with creative ambition chained by the market’s lust for perpetual growth, leading to a dilution of history, politics and humanity.

At least the action and acting are good.


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