Imagine you’re invited to see a movie about a man who was murdered.
“It’s a murder mystery,” you tell yourself and walk in. But you never see or hear about this man. The camera always pans away from the corpse, and instead of focusing on the body, it keeps filming around him.
What you see is that some people liked this man, some didn’t. Kinda. Some apparently tried to save him, some didn’t care. Close relatives lived to fight another day, but none of the living are particularly passionate about anything. The movie ends and everyone gets up to leave.
“Huh”, you say to yourself. “What was that about?” And, “What the hell, who died? What’s the mystery? And who’s the bloody murderer?
Someone shushes you and says, “but the man’s not important at all. Don’t you know? It’s a slice of life thing! It’s so deep, I’m getting a headache.”
That’s Dunkirk for you. Yes that Dunkirk of Christopher Nolan fame.
So far, the only thing I can agree on, is the headache.
Briefly, my problem with ‘Dunkirk’, Nolan’s Historical fiction that’s busting all charts is — It’s not history, it’s not storytelling and it’s not Dunkirk.
For the purposes of brevity, I should end here.
But a reviewer who insists on presenting a contrapunto to popular opinion, also has the tiresome job of showing why other reviewers are wrong.
The Organizing Purpose of a Story
Why is it not history? For one, history requires historical depth and context. Making a historical movie without historical depth, is exactly like making a biographical movie without any personal depth or context.
What does a historical movie without history mean? What is it trying to say?
Pretty much anything you want it to say. Then again, nothing at all – which is the same thing.
Every rave review of ‘Dunkirk’ – indeed of all such ‘postmodern’ cinema – tends to find “his own meaning” in the movie. Or tries to “search” for the film maker’s meaning.
Whatever the means by which anyone wants to tell a tale, a clear story must be told, not searched, fathomed, gleaned or investigated. That is the purpose of storytelling.
One may like or dislike a story, even love or hate it, but to be uncertain on what the story is after a few billion dollars spent, several months of making, thousands of cast, and 106 minutes of watching and listening – that is perfidy.
Dunkirk apologists have suggested readers “brush up” on their history before going to the movie. Or “make space” for Nolan’s unique style of story-telling that twists and compresses time.
I’ve been a Christopher Nolan fan. I think the first two movies of the Batman trilogy are absolutely gee-whiz awesome. Dark Knight will forever remain among my Top 10 movies. Inception is not my favorite, but I admire the craft in that movie immensely. I also nurse more than a passing interest in WWII, so I’m not exactly walking into the theater with a ball of wool for brains.
Yet in spite of this shared history that I am required to have with the film and film-maker, the movie fails to lift. Because Nolan fails to provide me with a sense of history.
The much touted and spoken of IMAX doesn’t begin to depict the scale of 400,000 men, 900 boats and ships of various sizes in the sea, over 50,000 dead, loss of 200 allied ships and over 4000 sorties. There are innumerable WWII stories that pick a single slice of life that are not necessarily about scale.
The Boy in Striped Pajamas shows the viewer almost nothing about the war, but WWII is it’s central organizing purpose.
The Imitation Game has not a single war scene, yet it qualifies better in the annals of WWII historical fiction because breaking the ENIGMA code is the central organizing purpose of the men in that story. I can name a score and more of such movies and ‘Dunkirk’ wouldn’t count among them.
In contrast — this movie contributes nothing to a common understanding of WWII in terms of historical depth or scale. Or even a single man’s depth of feeling in times of war.
Everything Matters Or Nothing Does
Why Dunkirk 1940? If this was, ultimately, also a mystery movie, why locate it in Dunkirk 1940?
And having located it there, why not reveal anything about it? Why was the evacuation required? What was the blitzkrieg? Who created the need for the evacuation? How did it come to pass that suddenly 400,000 men were stranded on a small beach? Where did these men come from?
We get nothing about this context. Nada. Exactly zero.
How are we to judge the stories of men on the beach that day, leave alone a movie, if we are to know nothing about their purpose and circumstance?
Really, how? The only clue that Nolan provides is Hans Zimmer’s cue music in the background.
“Hang on”, you might say. “Isn’t there a story?” Reviewers are taking of the whole, “land, sea and air” POVs (point of views) and protagonists who represent those point of views.
The simple answer — no.
What was the Central Conflict?
In the little context the movie provides, it posits the British against the French in ridiculous shorthand.
In one scene inside a small, beached Dutch trawler, a French soldier is heckled by British soldiers as a “Frog.” In yet another scene, British servicemen get priority evacuation over the French, who are dissed for abandoning their front lines to the Germans too easily.
For those even slightly familiar with WWII history, this miserly reference is ridiculously out of context.
The German blitz, their panzer divisions tearing through France is an astounding story. Movies in the 40s did a better job of getting that right. Anglo-French relations during the time and later, off Algiers, are far too complex for this strange two scene treatment. The roles of Churchill on the British end and Marshal Philippe Petain on the French end, are not to be so flippantly dismissed. For better and worse.
But Nolan not only snatches events completely out of context, he is deliberately selective in excluding some things.
One can’t hear British soldiers being called “Tommy” so the word “frog” sticks. More importantly, and this has been pointed out before, no German insignia, name or solider is ever shown.
The one time the WWII pejorative for a German soldier is used – Kraut, Jerry or Hun – it is visibly bleeped out.
Why So Selective Mr Nolan?
In fact, the attempt to create artificial conflict between the British and the French (because all other conflict was ditched), is astonishingly lazy story telling. A little over 100,000 French soldiers were eventually rescued from Dunkirk. But from the movie you’d think that all “the frogs” had been ditched or abandoned.
If the intent was to pitch the Anglo-French conflict, why not locate it during the Attack on Mers-el-Kebir off the coast of French Algeria, when the British actually bombarded the French Navy a month later on July 3, 1940 ?
But it seems the film-maker didn’t have the gumption to do that either. It is one of the sorest and lowest points between the allies in WWII history. It is also known as Churchill’s darkest hour. It would have been a tough story to tell in tough times.
So what was it? Did Nolan the filmmaker give way to Nolan the film -peddler? He could easily have located his mystery off Algiers. But how would he have then sold the story of civilians “rescuing” men in uniforms. Narrated faux history and faux heroism in a day and age that understands nothing genuine.
That said, there is a pact between film-makers and film-viewers that we try and see the film as best we can, from the maker’s point of view. This pact has been stretched to the limit in recent years, but one must try, the above objections notwithstanding.
Without arguing the trivia goofs in a movie that insists on details, a few objections remain.
- There were over 300,000 men on that beach. Despite the liberal use of cardboard cutouts, it was disappointing to just not get that sense of scale.
- Nolan failed to recruit me in the conspiracy of silence he wished to create despite my understanding his POV shifts. The background score seemed like a lift from Harmonica;s theme out of Once Upon a Time in the West and I just couldn’t get that screeching out of my mind.
- If this was supposed to be Dunkirk, with 400,000 on one beach, 100s of boats on the other, and Stukas in the air — I just wasn’t hearing the kind of noise I needed to hear. The noise was all wrong.
- It was the middle of a war zone. That beach should have been pockmarked with shelling. Not pristine and touristy as it was. If a beach lay about is what children are led to believe war is about – then god help us all.
One is required to indulge in a level of suspension of disbelief when watching a movie. Yet one is never required to suspend intelligence. If Nolan’s Dunkirk ever got shown in schools as a “history lesson,” the assault on history education is difficult to imagine.
In a world of post-thisism and post-thatism I refuse to assign another “post” to this new form of context-stripped, non-story telling.
Dunkirk, is a modern interpretation of an ancient tale by a historically and temporally-challenged film maker, in the way Little Mermaid is a Walt Disney fantasy. It has no relation to reality and one shouldn’t expect more from it.
Style as Liberal Porn
So far, the objections to Dunkirk have been mostly around the content and manner of storytelling. As a reviewer, I must say something about Mr Nolan’s style in this movie, such as it is.
Here’s my advice to Christopher Nolan’s friends and well wishers – before he ever again tries his hand at another war film, please dispatch him to a war zone.
One with real dead bodies of men who died in real battle. With real blood.
Anyone who’s seen men fall dead with gunshot wounds on a road, leave alone a sandy beach: they know dead bodies don’t fall elegantly, clothes neatly in place, hands and legs at natural angles. Ready to get up and run for their next shot.
Something happens to a man when the life-force goes out of him. The body falls at odd angles you would not imagine possible in life. Clothes betray his dignity as a bullet pierces his body. They bunch and rise and displace themselves oddly, so that the living may look down upon him in pity and automatically move to cover him.
Death has its own stench. It mixes with the blood and the soil on which it falls. Having smelt it once, you can never forget it. Having seen it once, you never lose that imprint from your mind.
But Nolan has never seen it. That much is plain as day. His film is a blaring announcement of his complete and utter innocence on the subject matter of his project. He has not the capacity to imagine death, leave alone offer the imagination to his viewers. Rehashed aerial stock photos from war archives will not do.
In a film about war and death, it is not necessary to glorify death. For there are some wars that no one wins. But it is supremely important to understand death.
Nolan’s stylized death is an affront to life. And to those who put it on the line for one reason or another.
Yet, that stylized telling around the tale, instead the telling of the tale, is exactly what this movie is being praised for. I find the antiseptic cleanliness of Nolan’s war as detestable as the casual gore of Quentin Tarantino. Both show equal disrespect to life.
If a film-maker is afraid of showing what a bullet wound looks like, he should stick to making kiddy movies. But if he chooses to make a war movie, he darn well make it believable. War is not a safe space. An artist, at the very least a filmmaker, should have the decency to recognize that.
The Word betrays
There is little exposition in the movie, so what little dialogue is there, is much spoken about. The reference to “home” and the reference to Churchill’s speech how “evacuation is not victory and yet…” These are both true and valid.
But the dialogue that no one’s talked of so far and the one that struck me most, was in the little beached trawler that comes to France as part of the rescue effort.
As Tommy stops his mate from killing a Frenchman to save his own life, the mate says bitterly: “Survival is not fair. its fate and greed and fear, pushed through the bowels of a man.”
It’s the second longest exposition in the movie, probably the longest original dialogue in the film. And it captures the spirit of this century perfectly.
Yet, most men that week, Dunkirk May-June of 1940– both in uniform and out of it – may not easily recognize that quality of survival. Many were scared. Almost all were changed. But greed as we know it today was not a word they would have recognized in that context. They might have been better men than us.
And hopefully, better men and women than us will come again. But it won’t be because this kind of mean-spirited and cowardly art is what we offered them.
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