Dunkirk: A Review

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My son and I saw Dunkirk (2017) yesterday.  I was looking forward to seeing it, but I am afraid I found it disappointing overall.   My review is below the fold, and the usual caveat as to spoilers is in full effect.




Let us start on a positive note:  the special effects, both CGI and non CGI. were spectacular.  The aerial and sea action scenes were especially well done, capturing well the chaos of war and the beauty of the ocean and the sky.

Like ancient Gaul, the film is divided into three parts.  On land we follow two soldiers and their harrowing experiences attempting to be among those evacuated from Dunkirk.  In the sky we join a flight of Spitfires flying to Dunkirk to give air support.  On sea we observe a civilian craft sailing to Dunkirk to aid  in the evacuation.

The land portion is the weakest.  We have no scenes that tell us much about the soldiers, or events that make us care about their plight.  They are indistinguishable from the other soldiers, all of whom wish to get out of Dunkirk and back to Britain.

In the sky there is exciting air combat, but we know nothing about the RAF pilots and they are not individuals to us.

The sea portion is the best, since we are able to observe at length the civilian crew:  a father, his teenage son, and the teenage friend of the son who volunteers to come on their rescue mission, and they become individuals to us, at least compared to the other portrayals in the film.

The acting is weak.  The best of a bad lot is Mark Rylance who portrays Mr. Dawson, the skipper of the civilian craft.  Kenneth Branagh is the actor in the film most likely to be known to American audiences.  However, his role is one step up from a cameo role and his screen time is very brief.  Dialogue throughout the film is sparse, and due to background war noises it is sometimes difficult to hear what is being said.  For American ears, the English accents sometime get in the way of being understood.

For a film about Dunkirk it really doesn’t tell us much about the event.  As we were leaving the theater, an elderly woman asked me if the movie was based on history, and I assured her it was.  I don’t expect a history lesson from a film, but the background information given by the film is truly minimal for a historical epic.

The film doesn’t have much period feel.  I never thought to myself that I was watching events that accurately depicted this crucial event from 1940.  Instead, it always seemed like  a none too skillfully done twenty-first century look back in time, with explosions taking the place of insight.

One of the cardinal sins for me in regard to any film is if it bores me.  To my dismay I did experience boredom several times in the film, something I have rarely experienced during a war picture.

The film does end on a high note  with one of the soldiers reading the ringing words of Churchill:

Sadly, the above video clip has more entertainment value for me than the entire Dunkirk film.  Save your money on this one.

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  1. This review is spot-on. My wife and I saw “Dunkirk” last night and were terribly disappointed, for all of the reasons cited in this excellent review. One other thing about the movie got my attention: never is the word “Germans” used, nor is Hitler ever referenced. Even, when a British flyer is captured, the “enemy” is blurred out so that you cannot see their uniforms. This was a waste of my time and money. Please don’t waste yours, as well.

  2. Excellent review. I was disappointed as well. Due to the hype – and Nolan at the helm – I was expecting something much, much better. The sound mixing was atrocious. The tri-part chronology was a mistake. The lack of “characters” was problematic. Despite that I did like it, but I think that it was just above average. I saw it in the recommended IMAX format, but I can say that there is no need for it. In fact, I think this movie would be fine to watch at home. (On a side note: I didn’t like War for the Planet of the Apes too much, either. CGI in that one was *great*.)

  3. I told my friends afterward that I appreciated the moral character evidenced in the old skipper and his teen aged son, and the wonderful spitfire pilot
    I was pleased to see the show. Probably my take was positively influenced by the 30 minutes of terrible previews just before the show, which were all about fantasy heroes, so I was glad to see the story of moral men who honorably and honestly dealt with this very real massive rescue call..
    The self control shown by the soldier in queue and their willingness most of the time to follow regular order is something that is so refreshing now.
    While this show required that you already know quite a bit about Dunkirk to get the most out of this abstraction. it still showcased good values and heroism. Though the period “feel” may not have been right for someone who has deeply studied both history and war, I think It can make a positive impact on many of today’s moviegoers.
    Just a drop of good in seas of bad from Hollywood, but I still encourage it because a drop of good is a drop of good. Young people who don’t know history but are fed on the typical violence and fantasy can be blessed by the knowledge that this strange, unselfish behavior was real.


  4. First of all, apparently Christopher Nolan had an actual ancestor involved in Dunkirk and had the dream of this movie for over 20 years.

    Second – screw it, I’ll buck the board and defend it. I’ve been curious what Don’s review would be since this is very much NOT a traditional war film. (I see he agreed with the reviewer Jeremy Jahns) I like how one reviewer put it: “One of the biggest moments in the war portrayed in the smallest way possible.” It’s very minimalist. To the point that if I was a teacher, I could probably make a fun class project with this film leading students to learn about the incident before showing them the movie.

    Now while I don’t know for sure and could be corrected, I think what Nolan is going for is a very immersive experience (he frequently does this on other films). It seems that he is not showing a traditional war film because he wants the audience to feel like they are at Dunkirk themselves. The sound design certainly does it (at times I could almost swear actual bullets were flying by) but I’d need to see it again to confirm it based upon his camera work and cinematography but off the top of my head I think a lot of shots in the film are from “witness angles” to make it really feel like you are there. It definitely seems like that’s his aim from the story structure given that he often tells the audience no more than any soldier might know. The old man in the boat doesn’t know how many others are going or how many can be saved, he just goes out across the channel to get everybody he can. The pilot doesn’t know how many are out there or if he can retreat, instead he has to make the choice to sacrifice himself in order to protect his countrymen (in my favorite moment of the movie).

    The movie definitely makes one feel like what the soldiers must have with the steady vice grip of the approaching Germans. Indeed I think Nolan keeps them off screen most of the time to give them a sense of a force of nature as dangerous and crushing as the ocean that claims so many.

    Like I said before, I wanted to see it just as a metaphorical middle finger to the haters of history out there and I don’t regret it. But it is a very different war movie and you should keep that in mind if you want to decide whether to go or not. I generally agree with Chris Stuckman here:

  5. @ Charles Culbertson. I had heard the same thing, that the insignia showing the Nazi military had been blurred out.

    So, we can suppose this means the ideology of the directors is that there is no good nor evil. Everything is a mixture.

  6. So, we can suppose this means the ideology of the directors is that there is no good nor evil. Everything is a mixture.

    . . . Yeah, if you’ve never SEEN the movie.

    Kind of like how someone can say that obviously since Sauron is never seen in the book that the ideology of Tolkien is that there is no good nor evil.

    Just… way to prove you’ve never examined the source and are pulling stupidity out of your hindquarter.

  7. I enjoyed the movie, but recognized its flaws. It was not a grand, large scope war movie. It portrayed soldiers who were in fear of being overrun and were desperate to get out. The heroism was in those who ensured their escape. When I was in the military, I sometimes imagined myself in their shoes. They are scared, hungry, thirsty, and things weren’t going their way. They wanted desperately to escape their situation. I believe this is what the movie represents. In winter, 1988 when participating in war games IN Korea, my platoon was cut off by the opfor. I spent Easter that year in a fox hole hungry, alone, and worried. Had it been an actual war, I think it may have rivaled the experience of the soldiers at Dunkirk.
    Trying to find water in a garden hose. Trying to find any escape from the beach away from the Germans.
    Again, it was a flawed movie, but it has its value. Look not at the big picture, but at the individual, almost anonymous soldiers who were in fear of capture or death. Then look at the sacrifices of those who tried to rescue those fearful individuals from their fate. 10% of a fighting force are warriors, and the remaining 90% are not so much. The movie was about those 90%, not the ten percent.

  8. I enjoyed the film immensely. However, I agree that there is hardly anything “Dunkirk” about it. It was almost generic, could have been about anything. Part of the reason I liked it though: the soldiers are everyman rather than some man.

  9. Neo-NeoCon had a reaction similar to mine to the film:
    “The film is a real blockbuster and has been widely and highly praised. But I had so many quarrels with it that I left the theater almost angry.

    Let me start with the good stuff. The dogfights in the air—which make up a large portion of the film—were an astounding piece of filmmaking. I don’t really mean the fight portions, which were a bit muddled and hard to follow, but the flight part, the swooping and the chase and the wide expanse of sky and sea. The big screen really came into its own there, and it was truly spectacular. Reportedly those scenes were filmed with IMAX cameras “attached to the fighter planes using specially-made snorkel lenses – in the back and the front” of each plane.

    The technical aspects of those portions of the film were so impressive that I found myself wondering how it was done even as I watched, which could have distracted from my following the story except that there was really very little story from which to be distracted. If you already know the basics of what happened at Dunkirk, the film doesn’t give you much more: men were trapped there, some were killed there, and hundreds of thousands were successfully evacuated by sea. And the film concentrates on the first two parts and gives the third part rather short shrift.

    Characters? You barely learn who they are. They don’t say much, and what they say is almost unintelligible. There’s almost zero historical context given for the entire thing, either. I kept wondering what young people, many of whom might not know what Dunkirk was, would be likely to take from this movie: that there were guys standing on a beach in a war, many died in harrowing ways, there was a lot of noise, and many were ultimately rescued.

    And the music—ah, the music! It’s a very special part of the experience, a pile-driving discordant cacophony that augments the sound effects until you wonder which is more aurally disturbing, the sound of the bombing or the sound of the music. Yes, I know this is supposed to be “immersive,” but I found it took away from the plot and made it all about the movie rather than Dunkirk itself.

    Have I forgotten anything? Yes—many of the actors look so much alike that unless you know who they are already (and I didn’t) you can’t tell most of the apart.

    And then there is the movie within the movie—another, far more conventional movie that follows the doings of a small boat manned by three civilians who end up picking up various survivors. This boat is captained by actor Mark Rylance, whose performance features an old-fashioned approach to conveying some actual nuances of character (gasp!). But to do that he had to be given the opportunity—the time, and some lines of dialogue, and some peace and quiet in which to deilver them. It’s not the fault of many of the other actors that they weren’t given those opportunities.

    “Dunkirk” cuts back and forth in time among several stories it follows—with the effect of making the viewer maximally confused, as far as I can see. But it also cuts and forth between the two widely different acting and directing styles, creating another discordance.”


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