Dunkirk, for all its spectacle, shrinks in the face of war and mortality

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is perhaps the one war film that manages to feel both unattainably large and unabashedly intimate. It is pared down. It is big. It is panoramic shots of the sea combined with vast swathes of beach to provide a stage on which tiny olive men fight for their lives. It is thousands of men racing against invisible existential clocks to flee the rigid war hell that is the heavily shelled beaches of Dunkirk. Stark blue, gray and olive visuals meet abrupt bombings and flailing, ticking limbs.

Slight historical references to the actual Battle of, and Evacuation for Dunkirk aside, that’s as far as the plot goes. The draw of Dunkirk is that if anything, it expounds upon very little. The enemies are invisible, save a few distant fighter planes and bombs. The conflict is largely had and blood is few and far between. The characters, whether they be civilian sailors, soldiers, Harry Styles, or air force pilots, all look the same, which is to say gorgeous with bayonet-sharp cheekbones. Bombs are bad. Do not sink ships with people on it. Shoot down Germans. War is bad. Martyrdom is good. The British are the good guys. Soldiers are heroes for surviving.

Soldiers are heroes for surviving. Such is repeated ad infinitum as rescued soldiers march haphazardly towards London-bound trains at the end of the film, greeted upon return to England with thunderous cheers. Therein lies Dunkirk’s maddening flaw.

The draw of Dunkirk is that if anything, it expounds upon very little. The enemies are invisible, save a few distant fighter planes and bombs. The conflict is largely had and blood is few and far between. The characters, whether they be civilian sailors, soldiers, Harry Styles, or air force pilots, all look the same, which is to say gorgeous with bayonet-sharp cheekbones.

For all its artistic brilliance, I can’t help but feel conflicted with Dunkirk’s hasty insistence on a heroic ending. The privates even tells us towards the middle of the film that “survival isn’t fair.” All the macro shots of planes gunning each other down, of soldiers ducking bombs, of invisible torpedoes sinking ships — they highlighted this. The lack of personal backstories in the film drove this. And then you tell us we’re all heroes for merely making it out alive? Odd.

It all makes for a tidy, forced ending that for me tries to give war sense though the film’s chaos drives home a singular point: that war isn’t about heroes or enemies or good or evil. It is a story of survival, commemorated not by generals saluting at piers’ edges, or noble civilians volunteering to rescue soldiers, but rather by the number of bodies floating lifeless on the sea. War is unforgiving, lithe, and wide-eyed. It is desperate and shaky, bloody and violent. It is, to paraphrase a recent article on Syria, “incomprehensibly byzantine, and very simple, made complex by its politics, but understandable by its cost: the lives of those victimized by it.”

To end, don’t get me wrong, Dunkirk’s a good film. The visuals are great. Nolan’s Nolan. You’re on the edge of your seat for like, the entirety of the film due to Hans Zimmer’s kick ass score. That’s all a given. It’s just, I guess in the end, Dunkirk is a film that is as much something you make of, as it is something that makes something of you. And thing is, with all that’s been going on lately — whether that be protests in the streets, wars across continents, brothers and sisters dying at the hands of nameless foreign conquistadors, our drug war even, I was looking for a war film that could finally stop telling us that survival wasn’t a privilege but a right stripped away. That no, that just because the handsomest guy won, or love interests unite, don’t mean they are suddenly heroes and the war can go on justified.

Dunkirk’s madness lies in the fact that it just falls short of saying it. Well, that and the turtlenecks. Beautiful, beautiful turtlenecks.

Grade: A-

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