Dunkirk a powerful tale that misses the epic scale

In the annals of war, the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940 ranks as one of the most miraculous, successful, and dramatic military actions of all time — all the more ironic because of its relation to an utter debacle. Oddly, Operation Dynamo (the evacuation’s code name) has almost never been given the cinematic treatment despite all of the potential it has for dramatic retelling. Christopher Nolan fills the gap with Dunkirk, but does the film really tell the tale?

Warning: Mild spoilers (but historical facts) follow.

Nolan set out to make a different kind of war film, and on this point he largely succeeds. All of the chaos, uncertainty, and fright of a siege practically pulsates throughout the film, boosted in intensity by a well-written score. Dunkirk starts off with a group of British soldiers who start getting picked off by snipers as they run through the deserted edge of the city until only one (named Tommy as a hat-tip to the Great War Tommies, presumably) manages to make it to the beach. Along the way, we see the degradation and humiliations of war through Tommy’s eyes as soldiers struggle to maintain discipline and courage while being sitting ducks for the Luftwaffe and Nazi artillery.

At least, we see it sometimes through Tommy’s eyes. The scenes shift between the struggle on the beach to the struggle in the air, and then to the struggle on the sea with both military and civilian transports coming to the rescue. This is a staple of war films going back to at least The Longest Day, and including Tora Tora Tora, Midway, and even Pearl Harbor to some extent. The scenes are brilliantly shot segments that sometimes don’t appear to fit, and it takes some time before one realizes that the film takes viewers back and forth in time to weave the storylines together.

That takes a lot of work, and it costs Dunkirk in a critical way. Most of the film focuses on the personal experience of war, which it presents in a gripping manner, but some of those experiences aren’t unique to Operation Dynamo, either. Similar scenes could have been written for any number of World War II epics, and with just as much authenticity as Nolan has in this film. It feels at times like an extended effort to outdo Saving Private Ryan, which used that grittiness in service to its tale rather than in place of it.

The story Dunkirk misses is what made the evacuation so amazing, miraculous, and dramatic — its scale. We get a sense of the scale of the crisis in the opening scenes of the film, but we never get a real look at the scale of the success. In real life, more than 800 ships and boats, including hundreds of small-craft vessels, went back and forth for over a week to get more than 300,000 British soldiers and 75,000 French troops. All we see of this is a vanguard of a few dozen boats on the horizon and a single run that rescued a few hundred troops. Dunkirk makes the basic cinematic mistake of having a character tell us the scale and scope near the end rather than show it.

Having said that, though, Dunkirk pays off in other ways. Its focus on the microstories allow us to emotionally connect with the soldiers on the beach, the desperation of the officers who knew what was coming, and the courageous British civilians who sailed into hell to get them all out. To some extent, the characters are treated as archetypes for the emotions Nolan wants to project: fear, battle fatigue, paranoia, phlegm in the archaic English sense, and so on, which occasionally feels didactic. The lead actors rise above that to deliver powerful emotional performances, such as Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) as a middle-aged father piloting a pleasure craft into the jaws of the Nazis, Tom Hardy as a fighter pilot who has to decide between his safety and others, and Kenneth Branagh as a naval commander looking for home. Pop star Harry Styles gets a little lost in the anonymity of the soldiers, but Tom Glynn-Carney and Cillian Murphy have perhaps the most meaningful dramatic character tension in the film.

The ending pays off emotionally as well. The soldiers evacuated off the beach at Dunkirk had been overwhelmed by the Nazi war machine, and considered themselves beaten. They expected to go home in defeat and humiliation, but they got a much different reception. The final fifteen minutes or so of Dunkirk is worth waiting out the confusion and missed opportunities of the previous 90, especially to see the heartbreakingly beautiful cinematography used for the finale of Tom Hardy’s story arc, a bright spot that hints at the victories to come after an abject failure in 1940.

Dunkirk‘s not perfect, and it does miss out on telling an epic story with its narrow focus, but is Dunkirk worth seeing in the theater? Yes, especially in the summer, when made-up superheroes fill the screens. It’s worth recalling the real-life, unassuming heroes that saved an army and kept up the fight against the dark forces of Nazi Germany, and Dunkirk delivers on that score. On the Hot Air scale, Dunkirk gets a five:

  • 5 – Full price ticket
  • 4 – Matinee only
  • 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
  • 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

Dunkirk is rated a surprising PG-13, despite realistic violence and disturbing images. Very little blood actually shows up on screen, which likely accounts for the MPAA rating, but don’t be fooled — it’s an intense experience, and those sensitive to violence should probably avoid it. I would think twice about taking my 15-year-old granddaughter to see it.

After writing this review, I watched C.T. Rex‘s Dunkirk review. He has some of the same issues I had with the film, but they made him, er … crankier.

Addendum: One of the trailers shown before Dunkirk began looks like it might offer a more promising platform for scale — Darkest Hour, in which Gary Oldman portrays Winston Churchill as he ascends to the office of Prime Minister just as the Allied lines collapse in France. That will hit theaters in late November.