Sunday, July 23, 2017
As the end credits rolled on Dunkirk, I sat there in shock & had to hold back tears. I’ve cried in movies before but this time felt different. Tears came not because I was attached to the characters & their journey ending like with Return of the King or Toy Story 3. Nor did I cry tears of joy because what just transpired onscreen was so magical like the Define Dancing sequence in Wall•E or Spotlight as a whole. Instead, it was profound sadness that I didn’t feel the joy & the awe the rest of the audience felt as they left. Not even close.
On the shores of Dunkirk, we meet Tommy (Whitehead), a British private who survives shooting in the streets of town, & the mysterious Gibson (Barnard) in their desperate attempt to escape the beach. On the sea, we follow Mr. Dawson (Rylance), his son Peter (Glynn-Carney) and their young crewman George (Keoghan) aboard Moonstone on their journey to Dunkirk to assist in the rescue effort. In the air, three RAF pilots, led by Farrier (Hardy), are in charge of providing air cover for the retreating Allied forces.
As I walked out of the theatre into the lobby & finally to my car, I staggered, tripping over the carpet, dazed. I honestly couldn’t believe what I had just watched. Essentially, I watched Christopher Nolan, who has made such wonderful works as The Prestige & Inception, try to create his own version of Alfonzo Cuaron’s Gravity. Instead of one grand character to root for, Nolan - who also wrote the screenplay- has created almost a dozen minor characters with no discernible characteristics or full names. For instance, the two soldiers on the ground spend most of the movie running from boat to boat, trying to escape only to have every single ship blow up in their faces. After the third different boat explodes without a discussion as to who these soldiers are, one might check out.
The movie also intercuts scenes of the crew of the Moonstone sailing. Then sailing some more. Then picking up Shivering Sailor (that is literally his name in the end credits) before sailing towards Dunkirk some more, against Shivering’s objections. During these scenes, Sailor does exactly one thing of that can be considered a relevant action that is so despicable towards another character that you feel zero sympathy for him, despite the fact that he is supposed to represent the thousands of shell shocked soldiers of Dunkirk. But the worst of this subplot occurs at the end when Nolan allows Shivering to get away with it without consequence.
There are two characters that have the ability to hold the interest of the audience. The first is Farrier, who you feel actually believes in his mission, in the soldiers on the shore & in his fellow pilots. The second appears in one scene in the final five minutes that is so heartbreakingly beautiful that I don’t dare spoil it here.
But what I will spoil is the defining moment where I knew for absolute certain that Dunkirk was Nolan making his own, simpler version of Gravity. At the end of the movie, one of the leads is reading Churchill’s We Shall Fight on the Beaches speech from the newspaper as a closing voiceover. During the speech, we see Farrier attempting to land the plane on a now-deserted Dunkirk beach as he runs out of fuel. (Oh…SPOILER ALERT: most of the soldiers are rescued. Sorry about that.) During this, the plane’s landing gear fails to deploy, forcing Farrier to manually pump the wheels out before he loses altitude. This final scene shows that Nolan wasn’t looking to make any sort of deep movie about the fragility of man or the despair of war. He wanted to make a simple, crowdpleasing thriller that played ticketbuyers’ eyes & ears instead of their hearts & minds.
In the real Miracle of Dunkirk, the British Navy, along with hundreds of private seacrafts, evacuated almost 350 thousand soldiers over an eight day stretch after the Allies were defeated in an early battle in World War II. In the newest feature from acclaimed filmmaker Christopher Nolan, he uses the events of Dunkirk to create a dazzlingly empty suspense picture that features set piece after set piece with occasionally grand visuals, spectacular noise that one might call sound effects & bland, literally nameless characters. It was a miracle I didn’t cry.