The evacuation of Dunkirk was perhaps at once the most precarious few days for western civilization, while at the same time one of her most inspiring triumphs. The world will never know just how close the Allies came to total defeat and capitulation to Adolph Hitler. The miracle at Dunkirk was a combination of inexplicable unforced errors by the German high command, the finest hour of the French army, and the indomitable spirit and will of ordinary British citizens. Last night I went to see Christopher Nolan's film adaptation of this great epic story. I was disappointed.
First of all, the film was not without merit. Nolan is very good at filming and directing intense scenes of agonizing warfare. He did a particularly outstanding job of depicting the violence and terror of a capsizing ship, the claustrophobic horror of being trapped in an oil fire on the open sea, the anguish of a man swimming toward a ship to save himself, only to see that ship destroyed by a Stuka dive bomber. But, that's about all that you get from Nolan in this film. If you know nothing about what actually happened at Dunkirk, Nolan's story amounts to a made for television minis-series in three acts. He focused, rather randomly, on three short stories, a dogged British fighter pilot, one private rescue vessel and its father and son crew, and a couple of beleaguered British soldiers trying to escape the carnage. He plops the viewer down in the middle of this maelstrom with absolutely zero explanation of how it came to be that almost the entire British Expeditionary Force, all 13 divisions of them, found themselves standing in long lines, hopelessly exposed on a French beach, the future of the world hanging in the balance.
When I complained about this bizarre lack of context, my son, who attended the show with me, asked..So, were you expecting some sort of history lesson? The tone of his question suggested very much that the term history lesson was a pejorative. Well, no...I didn't expect a history lesson, but some small attempt at staging the story might have been helpful, some explanation of the great-how did they get here-would have made for a more coherent film. My criticism of the film owes a lot to my being a history geek, I suppose. Despite its flaws, Dunkirk was worth seeing, if for no other reason than Hans Zimmer's sledgehammer score which literally never stopped in the background, pulsing and pounding away, assaulting the senses, adding brilliantly to the gut wrenching tension on screen.
I read a Twitter review this morning where some guy opined that Christopher Nolan did an outstanding job of depicting the futility of war. I thought...what movie did this guy watch??? Futility of war? Are you kidding me? What, in God's name was futile about 300,000 British troops being rescued from an exposed beach and certain death by a flotilla of over 700 private vessels, saving Britain from having to surrender to Nazi Germany?? Horrible? Yes. Tragic? Yes. War is, after all, hell. But we don't live in heaven, just a little east of Eden. And this side of Utopia, sometimes very bad people and states have to be vanquished. To do so often requires superhuman valor, bravery and sacrifice. There's nothing futile about that.