Ed. note: This is the first in a series of collaborative movie reviews to be written for Peregrine Magazine. A few of our writers give their “first impressions” of the new Christopher Nolan film, Dunkirk.
It was a new experience. It was an experience. It respected the viewer, wasn’t condescending, didn’t treat us like idiots who need to have everything verbally explained through implausible expository dialogue. It didn’t give us much dialogue at all, or any characters with tragic backstories to cling to. It was an event. It was brilliant. When my ears have fully recovered from the overzealous IMAX volume-knob-master, I will go see it again, and again. It was terrifying, and immediate.
But what struck me in the end was how pious a film it is. The whole thing is dripping with civic piety—the nostalgia of the soldiers on the beach (aching for a return across the channel), the old man reaching out to bring back the soldiers in his yacht, the self-sacrificing solicitude of the RAF pilots and naval officers. It’s crowned with a tear-jerking rendition of Churchill’s “we will fight them on the beaches” speech, brought to life by the juxtaposition of shame and defeat with a fatherland’s joy at the return of its prodigal sons. One leaves the theater grief-stricken, but filled with a new understanding of what the War was to Britons. It’s an experience of love for the homeland that is harder to come by today.
This movie is basically the Anti-Memento.
I thought it was excellent, especially because, unlike so many war films–actually, I think all of those I’ve seen–it went for a kind of stark, focused realism. What I found fascinating, too, was that the “battle” was, basically, the main character, although the battle as essentially involving human beings. I liked, too, how it made so clear how truly difficult it would be for anyone to remain brave in those sorts of circumstances. Without valorizing anything, or attempting to bring out the suffering and anguish of people it managed to do this all exceptionally well. And the gunshots actually sounded like real gunshots.
My problem was with the film’s vague humanism. My brother was irked I didn’t have anything much to say about the film upon leaving the theater. I think I know why that was. Dunkirk was for me what Avatar was for normies. A wonderful spectacle with little in way of ideas worth grappling with.
There’s a sort of nihilism about war (of a good sort) implicit in it. There’s a little bit of the classic rah-rah stuff at the end, but it’s quite muted by the standards of war films. If the British are to be allowed any love of country at all, they are allowed Dunkirk, as we are allowed baseball and blues music. Not the best film or even the best Nolan film, but a breath of fresh air in the genre.
Dunkirk is a beautiful film. It is harrowing, poignant, and ultimately uplifting. It also manages to hold various apparently conflicting themes in balance. By keeping dialogue and character development to a minimum, Christopher Nolan seems to privilege the universal elements of the story; nevertheless, Dunkirk does have a sort of protagonist in the young soldier Tommy, whose various brushes with death over the course of the film help to make him a sort of everyman who effectively represents an entire army. Dunkirk also gives us a vivid sense that the ‘universal’ narrative of war is ultimately an aggregate of many personal stories – Tommy’s story is important, but so are the stories of the RAF pilots in the air, the civilian mariners at sea, and the British officers on the beach trying to evacuate hundreds of thousands of troops under constant fire from German dive bombers.
The film operates with a clear sense of good and evil: the Germans are ‘the enemy’ above all, and almost never seen (the only time German troops appear on screen, their faces and blurry and out-of-focus, with a brief flash of a distinctive German Stahlhelm to tell us who they are). At the same time, conflicts among the British protagonists are never resolved simplistically, and characters who act in cruel or cowardly ways under pressure are ultimately treated with compassion. This compassion is what makes Dunkirk a beautiful film; in the final analysis, this is a film about the courage and goodness of ordinary people who find themselves in desperate and terrifying circumstances.