Movie Review: Dunkirk

I was extremely disappointed when Shakespeare in Love beat out Saving Private Ryan for the Best Picture Academy Award in 1999. Granted, SiL was clever and quirky, mimicking Shakepeare’s own rom-coms. It’s also the sort of hip film Hollywood likes to reward with its highest cinematic honor. Despite winning Best Picture, however, Shakespeare in Love appears to have been buried somewhere in the vaults of the Creative Industrial Complex. I suspect that few people outside academic and theater circles even remember it.

In contrast, Saving Private Ryan was truly an iconic, groundbreaking film that has endured well beyond its box-office shelf life. Besides providing movie audiences with a grisly and realistic depiction of the D-Day landing at Omaha Beach, the film sparked an interest in World War II history among the general population. In fact, just a few years after Ryan’s premiere, HBO produced the Band of Brothers miniseries, chronicling the combat experiences of Easy Company (the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division) as it fought its way from the Normandy beaches in France to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest in Germany.  Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers made historian and consultant Stephen Ambrose a household name and turned World War II European historical sites into major tourist destinations. (Last summer, Mike and I took the Stephen Ambrose Band of Brothers tour and followed E-Company’s route through seven European countries.)

Unfortunately, critics have often failed to acknowledge Saving Private Ryan’s artistry because it’s a patriotic war movie. To its credit, though, the Academy did recognize the film for Best Sound Effects, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Cinematography. In addition, Stephen Spielberg received the Best Director Oscar.

One of my favorite scenes occurs near the end, when Captain John Miller (played by Tom Hanks) and his men prepare to defend the bridge at Ramelle. As the soldiers wait for the German attack in the bombed-out, deserted village, they listen to a phonograph record of Edith Piaf’s “Tu es Partout” (“You are Everywhere”), the melancholy lament of a woman whose lover has left her. As the song progresses, the sound of Piaf’s voice begins to mingle with the screeching, grating noise of the approaching German tanks. The soldiers look knowingly at each other, realizing the discordant din of the war machinery is death’s calling card. As the outnumbered soldiers rush to their positions, the phonograph’s needle scratches across the surface of the record, another harsh reminder of war’s devastating impact on human beings.

My fondness for Saving Private Ryan made me eagerly anticipate last Friday’s release of the movie Dunkirk. Many critics have praised the film, some even arguing that it’s better than Ryan because it opts for a more cerebral and contemplative look at the horrors of war. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Academy concurs and awards it a Best Picture Oscar next year. Unfortunately, I predict that instead of enjoying Saving Private Ryan’s long-term renown, Dunkirk is destined for Shakespeare in Love obscurity. Certainly, it’s a solid film. Nevertheless, in spite of some splendid performances from individual actors, it ultimately fails to satisfy.

Dunkirk dramatizes the British Expeditionary Forces’ unsuccessful incursion into western Europe after Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 and the “Phoney War” dragged on for eight months without any serious or effective Allied offensives to thwart the German push into Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France in early 1940. The swiftness of the Wehrmacht’s advance took the Allied forces completely by surprise, and Paris would ultimately fall on June 14, 1940.

The BEF and some of their French, Belgian, and Canadian compatriots (approximately 450,000 troops in all) ended up surrounded and trapped on the beach at Dunkirk, France, with few options except to wait to be evacuated across the Channel to England. During the nine days many were stranded, they could only hope that rescue boats would arrive before the Luftwaffe mowed them down where they stood or the German army utterly destroyed them.

In real terms, the fiasco at Dunkirk and the fall of France were the culmination of more than a decade of denial and head-in-the-sand attempts to avoid war with Germany at all costs. From the naive 1928 Kellogg-Briand “international kiss” agreement that renounced war, France’s construction of the Maginot Line fortifications that ultimately proved useless, to appeasement, the political, diplomatic, and military planners were caught flat-footed and ill-equipped to respond to German rearmament and aggression. One positive element of the film is that it visually conveys this leadership ineptitude as the camera pans over the tens of thousands of men stranded on the beach. Director Christopher Nolan does not make this point overtly, however. The idea is evident from the palpable, collective desperation of the masses of troops.

Dunkirk also articulates the important role British civilians played in the war effort even before the London Blitz. If not for hundreds of privately-owned watercraft that aided the military in the evacuation, thousands more soldiers would have been lost than the 68,000 casualties the BEF suffered. Miraculously, the evacuation effort saved some 338,000 soldiers, even though Churchill initially believed that only 45,000 men could be rescued.

Presumably, Nolan intended the film’s minimalist dialogue and philosophical demeanor of Commander Bolton (played by Kenneth Branagh) to reflect the stoic, stiff-upper-lip British temperament, but his effort does not entirely succeed. With some exceptions, the film de-emphasizes the sense of solidarity and esprit de corps among soldiers in favor of a generalized sense of group misery. The movie’s detachment makes it hard for viewers to establish an emotional and empathetic bond with the stranded soldiers, though there is a brilliantly ironic scene when Tommy, the main soldier character,  reads Churchill’s “we shall fight them on the beaches” speech to a fellow soldier on the train once they’ve finally made it back to England. After the retreat from Dunkirk, Tommy’s facial expression suggests that he’s not necessarily convinced by the lofty words.  Similarly, the valiant RAF pilots dog-fighting the Luftwaffe remain hidden behind goggles and oxygen masks for most of the film. Missing are more conversations between soldiers. How were they coping with their circumstances? Was there any of the signature British cheeky (gallows) humor? Perhaps Nolan’s intent is to emphasize that war dehumanizes, and soldiers are often considered expendable, interchangeable cannon fodder. Whether he himself had to minimize the human element to tell the story is a matter for debate.

It’s hard for Kenneth Branagh not to be good in any role, but his character’s part (at least as written)  just wasn’t substantive enough to showcase his enormous talents. As he paced on the causeway (the “mole” referenced in the film), I halfway expected him to reprise his Hamlet role and recite a few appropriate lines to capture the mood:

Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?

Actually, I wanted Commander Bolton to say–or do--something dramatic, as he seemed a bit too ho-hum and philosophical about their plight. Perhaps it’s just my American cultural sensibilities and desire for decisive action, but it would have been less exasperating to hear him on a radio yelling, “Bollocks! Can we get some bloody boats?” at someone. At the risk of sounding too flippant, as I was watching parts of Dunkirk,  I recalled that even Gilligan, Skipper, and the professor were actively trying to figure out how to get off the island. Even for the British, accustomed as they are to queuing up and waiting their turns, the level of passivity seemed implausible. I was actually relieved when Tommy and a group of soldiers took the initiative to commandeer a trawler at least to try to get the hell off the beach.

Branagh may get a Best Actor award for the part of Commander Bolton, but the performance truly deserving of an Oscar is the magnificent Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies, Wolf Hall), who plays Mr. Dawson, a quiet, unassuming civilian who takes his own boat to Dunkirk to rescue soldiers. On the journey, he teaches his own son a lesson about courage and compassion. His low-key but decisive behavior makes him the most admirable character in the film. In fact, instead of employing the fragmented point of view from the air, land, and sea, the film might have been more effective had the stories been told exclusively from the civilian rescuers’ perspectives.

In all, Dunkirk is a competent film, but film critics are probably overstating its cinematic importance. Its dark, brooding mood will please highbrow viewers, but that may not be enough to include it among great World War II movies like A  Bridge Too Far, Bridge on the River Kwai, Tora! Tora! Tora!, Patton, and Saving Private Ryan.

Grade: B-