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Dave's Review of Dunkirk


The Guys from {FILM} is a discussion on movies and films from all eras and genres

Dave's Review of Dunkirk

David R. Smith

Well well well; it's been a long time since I've written anything except Throwback Tracks, but there's a time and place to change that and, apparently, that time and place is here and now. Also, for the first time in a long time, I have something timely to talk about. I have spent so much time catching up on things, I never seem to be the person to catch something when it first comes out. Usually I'm late to the party so I there's no sense writing anything. 

Today is an exception.

Christopher Nolan's newest movie, Dunkirk opened Friday. I found myself in Calgary with a day off and some time to kill. I had been to the Apple Store and was frustrated with my visit there, and I needed something to take my mind off it. I wasn't needed anywhere until 4:00 and there was a 1:15 matinee showing of a movie I've wanted to see since I first learned about it even being a thing that existed. If you want proof of how much I wanted to see it, go back and listen to the trailer reaction that Shaun and I had in our 128th Podcast. (35:35 if you want to skip the Luke Cage conversation.) You could also listen to the 150th 2017 Movie Preview podcast where we also get really excited about it (54:00 if you want to skip all the movies that have already come out.) So it was a movie that had a lot of hype and I was really hoping it didn't disappoint. 

It didn't.

I'm going to try my best to avoid any spoilers in this review but I can't promise anything. Also, if you know anything about military history, you basically already know how this movie ends. That said, I didn't know much about this story prior to our podcast way back when, so I'm not going to presume anything about any of you readers.

I do feel like I should briefly explain what happened at Dunkirk. Essentially the British and French forces were penned in. They had been pushed back into France by the enemy and, as a result, had literally no place to go, as they were pushed to the coast of France. England was across the channel, but a massive evacuation seemed unlikely. It was far too risky, and with German U-Boats patrolling the English Channel, what were the chances that they could actually get troops home? Well, with the Navy doing what they could, but with the heroism of many, many British civilians using their private boats (whether it was shipping boats, or sailing yachts) hundreds of boats made it across the Channel. In an operation where the Royal Armed Forces were hoping to save 30 000 fighters, it was upwards of 300 000 that got rescued. While it felt like a defeat, because Britain was retreating, it was really a victory because those soldiers could live to fight another day. Winston Churchill's famous "We shall fight them on the beaches" speech came as a direct result of the operation.

So now you know a brief history of the operation, I can talk about the movie. 

Christopher Nolan is a tremendous filmmaker and writer. There are very few of his films that he's made that I haven't enjoyed. In fact, having IMDbed him, I just realized that everything of his that I've seen, I've enjoyed. So I was pretty confident that as I got my ticket for this movie, his track record with me enjoying his films would be unblemished. 

The story follows three different threads: the British soldiers who were on the beaches; literally as West as they could go on mainland Europe, the civilians who were travelling the Channel to help with the rescue operation, and the Royal Air Force who were doing their utmost to try and prevent the Luftwaffe from dive bombing the beaches, the Moles and the rescue boats and doing whatever else they could do to impede the evacuation. (You get a sense of this about 0:30 into this trailer that came out just before Christmas.)

In true Christopher Nolan fashion, the stories all line up to create on long through line, though you're not necessarily sure how everything is going to tie in until you start to see the story unravel as it goes. 

One of the nice things about this movie is it's not laced with dialogue. Now, I'm not saying that this I want less dialogue in all movies; I'm just saying that in certain instances, there doesn't need to be a lot of talking, when imagery will do. This is one of those cases. 

My grandfather fought in World War II. He was an infantryman somewhere in (I believe) the Netherlands and that sort of area. I don't know for sure because, like many men of his generation who fought in that war, he escaped into a bottle on many occasions, and he died when I was 9 years old. I didn't know nearly enough about WWII to ask him anything and I'm not sure he would have told me anyway. He was a fairly quiet human being. I don't think he felt like reliving what he saw there. And that was somewhere distant from what happened in Dunkirk. 

This was a very hard movie to watch. I don't mean it was shot poorly and it was bad. I mean quite the opposite. It was shot extremely well, and was very good. I can't even begin to imagine what fighting in World War II was like. I have never been through anything a fraction as harrowing as the experiences of the men who fought anywhere in this war, but even more so the experiences of those who were standing on the beaches, helplessly watching German planes fly in, wondering if maybe this was the time that they were the ones to be in the position that the bomb landed.

And this is where Nolan's skill really comes into play: sitting in a theatre, watching a movie about war, I found myself really uncomfortable and almost short of breath. It felt like what was happening on screen was so real that I almost felt like I was there. I saw these characters up there, and I was hoping so much that they would be okay, but I knew not all of them would be because it's Dunkirk and this wasn't necessarily a happy story. Even as characters got onto a ship, you didn't know if they were safe because that Luftwaffe was ever present. There was a sense of futility to it and it made it even harder to watch. (And: don't take my word for it, take the word of a man who actually lived it*...)

As I mentioned earlier, there isn't a lot of dialogue in this movie, so I can't really comment on the performances, per se. I can say, however, that I found them to be compelling and I found myself rooting for every character. But isn't that the case with most war movies? What I can say is I found it interesting (and I literally came to this realization right now) is that this might be the first war movie where you never see a face of the enemy. You see their planes, you see the effects of snipers, but you never actually see a German soldier. But again, that was probably very much in line with the way it actually was in 1940 on that Dunkirk beach. 

*thanks for finding that, Will!

As I left the theatre, having endured nearly 2 hours of fighting, explosions, sinking ships and death, I was misty eyed. A lot of it was because of the visceral reaction I had to seeing the armada of non-com ships that risked everything to save their own, but I would say an equal proportion of my tears came from how thankful I was to the men and women of our armed forces who have, through the years, fought to make our country a safe place to be. I thought of my Grandpa, Spec, who was a mere teenager when he left for combat. I thought of my Grandma's best friend, George, who was like a grandfather to me after the passing of my own grandfather, who was injured in a tank somewhere in Europe, but never let that dampen his spirits. He was an honourable, decent, hard working, kind man to the end of his days. I thought of people who I had never met who made the ultimate sacrifice for people they would never know. They just left, facing certain death, because it needed to be done; much like those brave civilians who risked everything to save their countrymen because it just needed to be done. 

Movies that have this sort of impact on me don't come around often. Since moving to Lethbridge, I have had much more downtime as a result of only having one job (and, well, having moved to Lethbridge...) In that downtime, I have watched many movies. None of them have impacted me the way that this one did. Because none of them were as "real" as this one. (The fact that it's based on real life events, as opposed to a comic book definitely helped, but... you know...)

If you are a fan of war movies, you should go see it. It's one of the best I've seen. If you're not a fan of war movies, I don't know what to tell you; maybe you should see it anyway, because it's one that makes you really appreciate what people before you have done. I like a lot of Christopher Nolan's work. I firmly believe that this movie is now my favourite in his canon. It is not a movie to be missed and, ideally, if you get the chance, you should see it in the theatre, where it's meant to be seen. 

Having not done a lot of reviews, I'm not one to give out "stars" but if I were, this one would get a lot. So... 73 stars out 74. 

-D (@davidronn)