“More than 900 little ships came from Britain [to Dunkirk], evacuated the British and French forces and ferried them across the Channel to safety. They were able to rescue thousands of troops over the course of several days. This is often reported as an example of wartime British bravery and comradeship.
What is rarely talked about is the fact that many troops in the French Army were from Africa, and the little ships refused to take the Black soldiers. They left them on the beaches for the Germans to capture, and many ended up in Auschwitz. Senegalese director Sembene Ousmane mentions this in his film Camp Thioroye, which is based on the true story of a massacre of African soldiers by the French Army during the war.” - From the website ancestralenergies.blogspot.com
The inconvenient facts described above lay the groundwork for the most damning criticism of Christopher Nolan’s otherwise thrilling new film Dunkirk. How much more complex and challenging of an experience could Nolan have presented by simply making a noticeable percentage of the troops desperately trying to get aboard the rescue ships ones of color? Soldiers from India, Senegal, and Morocco (to name but a few) fought in the war to end fascism as part of the British and French empires.
Instead, Nolan and his casting team made the film a 99.9% white affair. That’s not cause enough to junk the picture. On the contrary, there is a lot to praise (which I’ll get to soon) about Dunkirk. But, it’s important to mention this glaring – and glowingly white – fault in the movie because it gives the white supremacists in the world (who are, sadly, on the ascent, in part because of the victories of the alt-right here in America) cause to point to a movie like Dunkirk as a shining example of bravery and heroism that could only be performed by the white race.
In my research of the above, I found no shortage of coverage from far-right websites bemoaning any critic daring to shine a light on this issue. Most made the fatuous assertion that people like me wouldn’t be happy until movies about WWII cast a female Muslim as Winston Churchill. It would be laughable if so many people didn’t take such a childish argument seriously.
What Nolan gets right in Dunkirk, though, he gets very, very right. His recreation of the hopeless situation on the beaches of France in the spring of 1940 is superb and steeped in atmosphere. The troops were surrounded by the Nazis after the Battle of France. With the enemy attacking from behind, the Brits could practically see home across the Strait of Dover. There were 400,000 troops waiting to be rescued, however, and with bombardment from Nazi aircraft, the practicality of rescuing them all was a dire situation.
The British government, in preparation for the war effort, created what might be the first motivational poster in 1939, featuring the popular phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On.” The poster was rediscovered and commercialized in the early 2000s, and hundreds of variations on the phrase are now ubiquitous. “Keep Calm and Carry On” could be an alternate tagline for Dunkirk. There are harrowing scenes of action and soldiers succumbing to the pressures of war, to be sure. The overall feeling Nolan establishes, though, the rich atmosphere he evokes, can be summed up perfectly by the famous catchphrase. Even as German war planes scream overhead, dropping death and destruction on the unprotected beach from above, the troops remain stoic. There is no mass panic. They take cover during the attacks, then simply return to their positions and wait to be rescued.
This same quiet reserve describes those who piloted what were dubbed the Little Ships of Dunkirk. About 850 private vessels – speedboats, pleasure craft, etc. – answered the call from the Royal Navy to sail across the Strait of Dover to aid in the rescue mission. These ships were critical, since they could get close enough to the beach to ferry the soldiers to the larger warships just off the coast. The film’s crew employed some of the actual Little Ships that took part in the rescue.
Director Nolan, who also wrote the screenplay, focuses on one Little Ship captain, Mr. Dawson, as a stand in for the esprit de corps of the whole fleet. Mr. Dawson agrees to the mission without question, but instead of turning his boat over to the navy, he takes it out himself. Renowned stage and screen actor Mark Rylance, probably best known to American audiences for his supporting role in Bridge of Spies, plays Mr. Dawson with a humble heroism. His matter-of-factness about the danger and importance of the mission is inspiring. His stoic reserve never falters, even when he picks up a marooned soldier suffering from severe PTSD. The soldier is clinging to his boat, which an enemy submarine sunk with a torpedo. Cillian Murphy delivers a harrowing performance as this soldier. He brings to vivid life the condition known at the time simply as “shell shock.”
Dunkirk’s structure is a triptych. We see Mr. Dawson racing to the French coast. Meanwhile, one soldier repeatedly attempts, and is thwarted, to get off the Dunkirk beach. There is also a squadron of three RAF Spitfire pilots providing air support to the stranded troops. Christopher Nolan’s primary obsession as a filmmaker is time. He delights in manipulating his narrative timelines, and exploring how doing so affects the storytelling process. His greatest achievements using this technique are Memento and Inception.
He does something similar in Dunkirk. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that the three different story threads we follow aren’t exactly linear. It took me a good half-hour of the movie’s run time to get my bearings. This is Nolan’s least successful use of timeline manipulation; it feels more obtuse than intriguing. Being familiar with Nolan’s other work, I’m eager for him to move on from this device, lest he fall victim to M. Night Shyamalan syndrome.
Storytelling machinations aside, on a technical level, Dunkirk is a stunning picture. Nolan is a master at staging continuous rising and falling action in his films. He did this particularly well in Inception. There are at least six major climactic moments in Dunkirk. Each one left me filled with tension. Hans Zimmer’s pounding and omnipresent score complements the action and ratchets up the suspense. His unique use of ticking on the soundtrack (synthesized from a recording of Nolan’s own pocket watch) is inspired. The sound crew also performed outstanding work, and are deserving of an Oscar win come awards season. The thrumming, deep bass of the enemy planes as they drop bombs on the beach, or when they engage in dogfights with the allied Spitfire planes, is awe inspiring.
War is hell, and hundreds of movies have tried to capture that sentiment. His film isn’t without its flaws, but Christopher Nolan succeeded in adding to that legacy. Dunkirk proves that stories chronicling World War II are far from exhausted. They can be, in fact, as vital as ever.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
- The action scenes in Dunkirk are harrowing. The tension is masterfully staged and executed. I just never fully bought into Nolan's approach to narrative time juggling in this movie. The whitewashing of history is also deeply troublesome.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Here comes the part where I completely contradict myself. My problem with Nolan's unique approach to timelines in this movie stands. However, would I take Dunkirk's story and execution over a trite love-story-with-war-as-a-backdrop movie like Pearl Harbor? Any day of the week.
- If you'd like to read more about the racial makeup of the real soldiers stranded at Dunkirk, read this. It's excellent.
- I didn't mention it above, but Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography is beyond gorgeous.
- A note about the aspect ratio: Christopher Nolan is old school when it comes to making movies. He still shoots on film, as opposed to digital, and he relishes using the 70mm format and IMAX exhibition in order to take advantage of the best thing about the theatrical experience: a larger than life event. I saw Dunkirk twice. The first time was a 70mm, true IMAX Dome Theater showing, at the Ft. Worth Museum of Science and History. The second time was at my local Alamo Drafthouse in Dallas. I saw Nolan's last movie, Interstellar, at the same IMAX Dome, but I had seen it on a regular screen first. Now that I've done it both ways, I think the best way is on a regular screen first, then on the IMAX Dome. I appreciate the dome experience, but it's made specifically for specialty films that feature almost exclusively wide shots of huge, panoramic vistas. There are plenty of those kinds of shots in Dunkirk. But it is also a narrative, Hollywood film with plenty of close-up and medium shots. That is where the limitations of the dome experience are most evident. I sometimes felt confused, and almost claustrophobic when there were long stretches of close-up or medium shots in the movie. So, it's nice to have a handle on what's happening in those moments by seeing it on a regular screen, but the incredible experience of the wide shots (any shot from the Spitfire planes are breathtaking) is completely worth seeing in on a dome screen.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- I'll be writing about a film that I really hope becomes a sleeper hit/cult favorite. It's called Brigsby Bear, and I've already seen it twice. The first time was back in April, when the studio wanted to get an idea of how it played with audiences before they released it. It's finally coming out, and they held another screening now that they are ready for reviews. I'm a big fan, and I can't wait to write about it. The movie is from the Lonely Island crew, and that's all I'll say until next week.