Before we begin our usual movie discussion format, I present to you a historic milestone here on Midlife Crisis Crossover: our first guest movie reviewer! Reprinted here in its entirety is the full summation of Christopher Nolan’s latest Best Picture nominee Dunkirk as presented to me by my wife Anne, a lifelong World War II student/expert who can deliver literally hours’ worth of speeches on numerous aspects of it without using a single note card. It’s extremely rare for Anne to write or co-write anything here on MCC because she thinks of this site as my thing and prefers to read my creative takes on our experiences. She’s contributed to maybe three or four past entries, tops, but now we can add our Dunkirk entry to her official MCC bibliography.
Take it away, Anne:
“THEY TOOK THE MIRACLE AT DUNKIRK AND MADE IT BORING!“
…ladies and gentlemen, a round of applause for Anne, won’t you?
Short version for the unfamiliar: From May 26 to June 4, 1940, over four hundred thousand British troops were stranded in the north of France and needed rides home. Over sixty thousand died, but over 330,000 were saved thanks to the efforts of over 800 mostly civilian boats. That’s the quick version of the Wikipedia entry. Film fans might recall it as the best scene from Atonement, in which director Joe Wright captured its essence in a five-minute tracking-shot requiem. Never one to aim for brevity, Nolan’s rendition is three self-contained tales from different vantages, starting points, and rates of time passage. Rather than settle for a conventional mini-anthology format a la New York Stories or Four Rooms or Creepshow, Nolan turns Dunkirk into yet another of his editing experiments with non-linear chronology as the tales are sliced ‘n’ spliced, their parts alternating in equal measures so they eventually meet near the end of the evacuation, but viewers have to get used to them each taking turns. That way, if you find one story dull, wait a few minutes and the next one will pick up, but try not to groan when the one you dislike comes back around again. In a way it’s like a grim-and-gritty two-hour Love Boat episode.
Those three live-action shorts:
* The one where hundreds of thousands of British troops stand in polite lines on an empty beach, waiting for ships to show up and let them board single-file in an orderly fashion before enemy pilots can mow them down en masse. Overseeing the field of under-30 standby lookalikes are Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy (Agent Carter, Broadchurch), taking turns shepherding the concerned soldiers and looking forlornly at the empty horizon. Meanwhile in the foreground, one pair of nervous lads keep trying to find their own exits and failing miserably at it, fleeing or causing one accident after another, like that prologue in The Naked Gun where OJ Simpson just can’t stop damaging himself.
* The one where a humble fisherman (Oscar winner Mark Rylance from Bridge of Spies) takes his son and another young lad out from the English coast to Dunkirk so they can participate in the mass rescue effort. Along the way they pick up a shell-shocked castaway (Cillian Murphy!) who’s freaking out and ruining everything.
* The one that’s a reboot of Snoopy vs. the Red Baron except it’s WWII instead of WWI and Snoopy is played by Tom Hardy, so he’s 1000x manlier even while hidden behind an oxygen mask.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Teenagers worldwide either swooned or gagged at the announcement that One Direction heartthrob Harry Styles would play one of the soldiers. I rather suppose he does, but I couldn’t tell you which one was him because I’m 45. I looked it up and learned his big moment is the scene where he points out that another soldier has a deep, dark secret. So if you rent it from Redbox in hopes of finding Harry, look for that scene, and be aware Dunkirk has no Harry Styles musical halftime show.
From the Department of Faces I Thought Were Familiar But Actually Weren’t (Yet), one of Hardy’s squadron mates is Jack Lowden, who recently played Morrissey in the biopic England Is Mine.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? We expected a traditional recount of Great Moments in British War History, but all the characters are composites or wholly invented for dramatic purposes. The Dunkirk triptych is instead an all-star salute to British men who proudly serve the queen against the forces of tyranny and exemplify the bold tradition of the stiff upper lip. Branagh and Mr. Jarvis must find ways to keep hope and their men alive without themselves collapsing into tears. Rylance must keep his modest boat humming along toward Dunkirk by any means necessary, dutifully ignoring and/or temporarily forgiving when senseless tragedy complicates his voyage. And our man Tom Hardy must somehow make aerial dogfights exciting even though his gas is running out, his voice is realistically muffled, his backstory is nil, Charlize Theron isn’t around to copilot for him, and I don’t think any of his scenes were more than two minutes long. Fighting the good fight is virtually all they’re about, the lot of them.
Nitpicking? The longest, most heavily populated story ends up the least engaging because all those young Englishmen were thoroughly interchangeable. Every one off them has the same scruffy Everyman vibe more typically seen standing behind the main cast in a more star-studded war flick, where they’d be shot dead one by one, ignominiously and anonymously. Much the same happens here, except their two thespian elders are off to one side and useless when it comes to pointing them out or naming them or even assigning character traits to any of them. Not one of them share their inner lives, existing only in that Dunkirk moment as representatives of the various factions idling or dying on those harsh beaches. When one of their number is revealed to have a Deep Dark Secret after spending the first 70-odd minutes not really mattering, the ensuing altercation was hard to track because I couldn’t tell which pasty ragamuffin was which. And as for the Deep Dark Secret itself: to me it was a big fat “So what?” But I’m pretty sure that’s my ignorance of historical context showing. More so than in any of the preceding paragraphs, I mean.
If you’re not one to care about Nolan’s penchant for narrative trickery, the julienne-sliced portioning may drive a wedge between you and what I sense is Nolan’s emotional investment in this key WWII event. If you were hoping for three-dimensional protagonists to provide your sympathetic gateway inside the experience, the film’s lean, two-hour running time doesn’t have broad enough margins to allow it, though honestly I wouldn’t have minded Nolan aiming once again for a three-hour spectacle if it meant a richer tapestry of heroism.
And I still don’t get the ending. Minor spoilers ahead:
Most of the men make it back alive, but not all the characters with names do. The final scene is a reading of Winston Churchill’s famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech given June 4, 1940. It’s presented here not as an archival recording of Churchill himself, nor as a soliloquy by some celebrated actor in Churchill wardrobe and makeup (why not bring back Timothy Spall for his fourth go at the man?), but as a morning newspaper read-aloud from one of the pasty young survivors. I imagine the point of this filtered staging is to honor the power of Churchill’s words no matter who’s delivering them or how utterly exhausted they are. I guess? I mean, I realize the American version of such an occasion, if we had one so analogous, would probably have enlisted Michael Bay to whip up a new music video for Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA”, so perhaps I should be grateful for Nolan’s subtlety even as I lament not feeling deeply stirred by it. Maybe you were expected to bring your own ingrained UK patriotism into the theater with you.
So what’s to like? Ultimately I appreciated Nolan’s objectives after the fact in that classic manner where one nods along as the thoughtful musings coalesce and whatnot, leading the thinker to wordy responses more intellectual than emotional, suited more for message board pontification than for Facebook status debates. At the time we left the theater, I couldn’t concentrate on post-viewing analysis because my wife and son had quickly formed a vociferous anti-Dunkirk alliance and begun venting over their mutual boredom and the unnecessary timeline convolutions.
We three did hold one opinion unanimous: Tom Hardy’s proto-Top Gun B-story may have been skimpy, but his were still the best parts. Hardy’s just like that, no matter how hard you try to suppress his magnetism. Even The Dark Knight Rises, my least favorite Nolan film to date, had Hardy to thank for its salvageable moments. Beyond that, I envision Dunkirk earning better responses in future history classes, but not until linear supercut versions pop up online so teachers have less choppy illustrations for their points.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Dunkirk end credits, though historians may appreciate the fact that many of the watercraft in the film were in fact the originals that helped save soldiers’ lives as part of the Miracle at Dunkirk — later nicknamed the “Dunkirk Little Ships”. In 1966 the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships was formed in honor of their moments of tremendous service to preserve their legacy for future generations and to keep all those heroes in touch with each other. Over 100 of the original ships are members, still around and seaworthy today. The credits gratefully acknowledge their participation and name every single one of them.
I’d never heard of the Dunkirk Little Ships before and, in all honesty, had assumed that label was Nolan’s cutesy answer to the “Production Babies” section that’s now a mandatory part of every animated film’s end credits. I thought we were reading off some extremely bizarre baby names till I realized they were listing actual boats.