Let me preface this by saying I am no cinema expert. I have never gone to school for cinematography and have only had a brief introduction to movies as an art. I write entirely from a layman’s perspective, and felt obliged to do so, because I think the critics have gotten this movie so wrong.
When I entered my local cinema to watch Dunkirk, I was excited. As a history buff and a fan of action films in general, I thought that a movie that explored one of the lesser-known events of the Second World War was going to be a treat. What I got was as traumatic as this event should have been to those who went through it, and for all the wrong reasons.
For those who are unaware, after Germany’s invasion of Poland in September of 1939, Britain and France unanimously declared war on the Reich. Still fresh with the lessons of the First World War, the British and French militaries put all their reliance on defense, and were hesitant about committing any large-scale offensive action. This period between September 1939 and May 1940 is what is sometimes called “The Phony War” or “The Sitzkrieg”.
When the Germans had finally regrouped from their Polish offensive, they struck through the Netherlands and then through Belgium, violating those state’s neutrality and sweeping their armies aside. The French and the British were caught off-guard, and especially so later when the German Panzer Armies managed to make a strike through the Ardennes Forest – an area of the front that was not heavily guarded because it was through the forest made any large offense impossible.
By May 1940, when this movie takes place, the British and French armies had been completely routed and forced into a tiny pocket around the town that bears the films namesake: Dunkirk. The British government, not having enough ships to adequately transport the combined numbers of the remnants of their own Expeditionary Force and the French Army, called on civilians to help come to the aid of the soldiers.
The reason that this event is considered a miracle is because of the sheer number of soldiers who escaped, in no small part to the courage of the British civilians or the soldiers who fought to keep the pocket from being overrun by German Panzers in order to give the evacuation more time.
With this in mind, I thought that this movie would be a no-brainer. The script practically writes itself. I expected a Saving Private Ryan from the British POV, what I got instead was nothing less than a disaster.
Let’s start with characters, because they’re the essence of all movies. A story is only as good as its characters, and if they are sympathetic or in some way relatable to at the very least, it helps us as the audience make a connection and follow the events of the story better. That was not the case.
The film opens with a squad of British soldiers meandering around a French town while pamphlets fall all around them, urging them to surrender. Fionn Whitehead, who plays the appropriately named “Tommy”, soon finds he is the only survivor after his entire squad is mowed down less than five minutes into the movie. This character is the closest thing that this movie has to a protagonist, and even that is being overly generous on my part.
This is a major flaw of the movie as it tries to follow the storylines of four individuals within the story. The lack of characterization is startling, and any emotional investment is hamstrung by lack of identifiable motivations and emotions.
I will not spoil the movie’s major plot points, but I will suffice with this: many of the action scenes are jarringly unrealistic and break my suspension of disbelief simply because the human emotion was not there. The protagonists and the soldiers involved all seem to be on Xanax when they are under attack, as they stare mindlessly up the sky. There are no screams or pleas or nervous breakdowns – like in real war – all we get are zombies whose only reaction to anything seems to be a fatalistic stare into oblivion.
At no point in this film did I ever feel actual sympathy for any of the protagonists. In fact, I felt distant and isolated from them. They are just faces in a crowd. And while that might be true to life, it doesn’t make for a compelling story.
That said, this movie does have some good points. The camera work in this movie is amazing. The shots encapsulate the feeling of the oppressive weather and the sense of imminent peril. When we are on ship, the shots feel claustrophobic and cramped, much as they would have in real life.
The uniforms and costume work on this film are superb, and everything is period correct, as far as I can tell. However, this attention to details and historical authenticity is hampered by the movie’s ability to tell a story.
The miracle of Dunkirk was just that – a miracle. The British army was expecting to lose a majority of its forces, but through the determination and willingness of the British public, they were able to escape, more or less intact. And while this is a heralded historical event, the movie misses the mark in that it fails to capture the human element of it, and why it was considered the first British ‘victory’. It gave the British a renewed sense of patriotism and dedication to the cause. By the end of the movie, when we hear Churchill’s ‘Fight them on the Beaches’ speech, we the audience should feel ecstatic, instead, the sentiment is cheapened by the lack of humanity, and the ending feels as underwhelming as the rest of the movie.
In conclusion, Dunkirk had a lot of potential as a historical film, but it just does not capture what makes war films captivating to audiences. War is a brutal and traumatizing experience and it tests the limits of everyone’s mental and physical endurance. War brings terrible tragedies, but it also brings truly astonishing acts of heroism and bravery. Dunkirk simply does not capture any of these key elements, and the characters tend to be as lifeless and gray as the scenery around them, despite the awesome visual effect and compelling camera work.