It has now been six months since the release of Dunkirk but its nomination for the Best Picture Oscar gives us a chance to return to it for a reconsideration, with a little pocket of distance as a cushion. At the time of release, the film was, for the most part, very warmly received – some critics going so far as to say it is the greatest war film ever made. There were some more muted responses, but on the whole the reception was the high praise that director Christopher Nolan must be getting very used to hearing, ever since the stellar success of The Dark Knight (2008).
For me, ,em>Dunkirk was certainly a masterfully constructed cinematic spectacle that tried to do new and, to some extent, daring things with the genre, while adhering to a verisimilitude which both befit and honoured the circumstance it depicted. But there were problems. This was by no means a perfect film just because the glossy direction felt flawless. That in itself was the film’s first flaw. The phrase that has kept bouncing through my head since last summer was; Dunkirk, – beautiful, but should it be? This, therefore, will be less a review and more a reflection. It will ask questions of the choices Nolan et al have made, and questions of the art of film itself, and how we might expect the form to conduct itself. If, indeed, such expectations can be made.
So, is Dunkirk too beautiful? Some reviews compared it to Spielberg’s genre-defining masterpiece Saving Private Ryan (1998), but I felt the two films were actually quite opposed. Spielberg’s depiction of the Normandy landing was a brutal and shocking plunge into a visceral horror that left a generation thoroughly disturbed and placed the blind terror of war front and centre. The resulting quest tale of the rescue of one soldier balances heroism with stupidity in a tension that never quite gets resolved. In contrast, Dunkirk barely spills a drop of blood and flows inexorably towards a totalised triumph. A question arises here of what we should expect of the violence of war films: extreme and real, but gratuitous, or pacified and avoided, but fundamentally false? Dunkirk aims for a ratcheting of tension, not least through Hans Zimmer’s thrilling score, and in some scenes this is more than achieved. But is the rest too clean? Does Nolan run the risk of making war seem better than it is by shying away from the intense blood-and-guts seen in, for example, Hacksaw Ridge (2016) or The Hurt Locker (2008)?
Perhaps it is refreshing for a film to avoid gore in favour of nuance in this hyper-violent age, and it certainly helps box office to keep the BBFC rating low (in this case, a 12A). This latter may have been a commendable moral choice – the lower the rating, the younger the audience, allowing for the generation with greatest distance from Operation Dynamo to learn a piece of important their history. Hence also the inclusion of pop starlet Harry Styles, who features as one of the young British soldiers stuck on the beach trying to navigate his way home. Styles himself plays the part well and no doubt his presence resonated strongly with his fans who came to see the film on the strength of his name. But here rises another cinematic problem. Does the presence of Harry Styles actually lift us out of the film, rather than keep us buried inside it? Is he a distraction? Are we spending all of his screen time judging the quality of his acting, adding to our mental store of his particular star persona? Put this another way; if that part was played by a relatively unknown actor, as the other young soldiers were, would it have been better for our suspension of disbelief?
Perhaps that is an archaic idea. We are sophisticated enough to do both – know that it is Styles and pretend that it is not. But if Nolan’s point here is to educate a young audience, was the inclusion of the cutest one from One Direction the best strategy? And in terms of education, what sort of image of Operation Dynamo do we actually get from Dunkirk? Choices are made for both aesthetics and narrative tension that play fast, loose and dangerously with that history we’ve somewhat drifted away from. There were grumbles at time of release about the whitewashing, which remains a very, very key problem that has not been properly addressed. Would it have killed Nolan to cast some Black and Indian actors? Related to this, what of the soldiers that were left behind? Operation Dynamo wasn’t quite the perfect triumph the film seems to suggest. Many soldiers, especially French soldiers, were left permanently behind and became POWs and worse. Kenneth Branagh’s paragon of virtue character, Commander Bolton, gives a baleful speech about staying on that pier to help the French, but this begins to feel like a very dubious attempt to rewrite history. No such beneficence occurred and we really should not pretend otherwise, no matter how powerfully stated by a national treasure.
It’s also worth saying that Operation Dynamo didn’t just take place in the space of one brief flit across the channel and back, it was a lengthy, protracted and slow process involving a constant shuttling back and forth of the civilian flotilla and the dregs of the Navy. This perhaps doesn’t fit so well with Nolan’s need for narrative tension and cohesion, and here arrives another big question. When dealing with the history of tragedy and loss, how far should artistic licence be stretched? Far enough to weave together a fantasy of a spitfire running out of fuel just so it can silently take down a German bomber plane just at the last moment? Such an angelic moment is searing and profound and poetic, but it clearly never happened. What right, in this particular instance, did Nolan have to invent it? Were the real heroics of the RAF not enough? Too chaotic, not narratively neat?
There is much to commend in Dunkirk. It depicts the young age of the British soldiers with chilling accuracy. It brings out a fantastic performance of PTSD from Cillian Murphy, and the aerial combat sequences are particularly well presented. It attempts an innovative (but again, sometimes quite distracting) narrative structure, shifting between timeframes and points of view. It is a film which should be seen, for many cinematic and narrative reasons. But it is by no means a film which cannot – or should not – be questioned. Nolan has made some directorial choices which are at best mistaken, at worst jingoistic. As we move further and further away from the two World Wars, and as we start to hear dangerous echoes of the most feared rhetoric from powerful people, we need to be increasingly careful about how we depict those events in our art. Yes, we should continue to explore the World Wars, but we must also ask hard questions of how we craft those stories and where and when artistic ambition should step aside. By all means watch Dunkirk, and watch it again. But don’t take it at face value: let it lead you to clearer truths.
by David Hartley