Dunkirk (aka Bodega Bay) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
When Christopher Nolan set out to make a war film about the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk, he approached it with bigger emphasis on the war than the characters. His camera holds firm on the urgency of events than the backstories of the fictional soldiers he inserted for this film. This could be a negative trait in that Nolan doesn’t give us much of a reason to care for these characters, but I believe this work to the film’s benefit. How many war movies have there been where a soldier talks about his girl back home, a son waiting for him, being one month away from retiring or their future plans that may not come true? Nolan would rather we focus on the war than such familiar cliches.
There are three arcs followed over different periods of time during the evacuation. On the beaches of Dunkirk, the soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) tries to find a way off the beach that is already overcrowded with soldiers just trying to get home. He’s to go to great lengths to hitch a ride, from pretending to be a medic to hiding among the docks to be a stowaway. This is our central protagonist for this arc, but he’s no war hero. He just wants to live and is smart enough to figure out how to do so, but will still have to live with the guilt of leaving others behind. When he finally makes it onto one of the boats, he declines going inside to the warm mess hall and stays topside to keep a lookout for the enemy. Sure enough, a torpedo hits the boat and Tommy is one of the lucky few to make it off. Not everyone in the mess hall escapes.
With the beach constantly assaulted by German planes and bombers, a small British air force is called in to provide support. Farrier (Tom Hardy) is in a squadron of only three that must take out the Germans and it’s not easy. Those English Spitfires are not the most reliable of craft and Ferrier will have to rely on good memory to monitor his gauges that have gone dead. Unlike Tommy’s story, there is no room for needless banter here as most of Hardy’s lines are orders with his concern for his Spitfire’s failing mechanics remaining mostly silent.
The only section with the most character comes in the sea story where a civilian yacht captain (Mark Rylance) takes it upon himself to steer towards Dunkirk and rescue soldiers. Rylance’s character is heroic enough to head towards Dunkirk even when a shivering rescue (Cillian Murphy) informs him not to, but smart enough to know when to pull back when it’s too dangerous to be involved. The movie could have been entirely about his journey considering how intense, driven and strategic it comes off as.
The movie is wall-to-wall action with the character given so little time to develop that they’re rarely referred to by name. Some don’t even have names as with Cillian Murphy’s rather large performance being dubbed as the role of Shivering Soldier. But the action is clearly where Nolan shines best in his films and he’s brought his A-game for throwing us straight into the war without compromise. When the bombers begin to assault the beach, it’s incredibly loud to the point of making theater speakers quake. I have never listened to such sound mixing that ever made me as fearful of a war as this picture did.
Some might call me a hypocrite for praising Nolan’s horrifically noisy sound direction when Michael Bay will crank the volume just as high with his Transformers movie. There’s a key difference. Bay’s war scenes are meant to be fantastical and thrilling, intended for us to be more excited about charging into combat of lasers and explosions. Nolan doesn’t want us to rush into war; a bomber that is so ear-splittingly loud as it looms over with intent to obliterate is not something you want to hear. The insistence on making the war so loud helps make Tommy’s cowardice state a little more understandable.
Dunkirk is a very unconventional war film. The larger focus on the war at hand than the players involved gives the film a subtle appeal of the minds of soldiers for such an action-heavy scenario with an intense score by Hans Zimmer. The three stories at play with different duration and non-linear editing keep the film moving with energy and perspective. There are no major heroes in this picture, only survivors. When one soldier finally makes it back to England, he is greeted by a civilian that hands him a meal and thanks him for his service. The soldier rejects the thanks to argue that all he did was survive, but the civilian retorts that this is enough. Nolan’s film helps us understand that need for survival a little more than just the blind faith of those who weren’t on the battlefield. Few war films are this precise and operatic with an intent on showcasing the horrors of war.