Monday, July 31, 2017


I don’t often review movies but this past Friday I went with some work friends to see Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk.” While not a devotee’, I do enjoy many of his films because they seem to be thought provoking (except the Batman movies which were intense but more disturbing than provoking). The story of Dunkirk was vaguely familiar to me but many of the details had drifted from my memories. For those who are in the same boat, here is a short synopsis.

Early in the war with Germany, France and England found themselves in a precarious position. Outnumbered and outgunned, both Allied armies were retreating to the shores of Dunkirk. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were packed on the beaches, waiting for rescue in whatever form it might arrive. Many heroic events occurred and the operation was later dubbed “The Miracle of Dunkirk.”
Christopher Nolan took this uplifting and tragic story as the theme for “Dunkirk”.

Nolan's presentation of the story was unusual – there are three time-lines following different events of the battle/evacuation. Each line covers a different frame of time – an hour for the RAF fighter pilot, one long and excruciating day for rescuers in a small boat, and a traumatic week for soldiers on the beach/ship. The switching back and forth can be more than a little off-putting for viewers if they don’t pay close attention. And to make things even harder, there is very little dialogue in the film so viewers must be diligent in following what is happening.

Soldiers being helped into a fishing boat.

My first impression was one of confusion – the different points of view took some effort to understand (that’s why I share that part with you here). But the more I watched, the more it became easier to follow the story. And then the real message began to emerge.

Soldiers standing in the ocean, waiting for rescue.

In a little more than 9 days, nearly 400,000 Allied soldiers were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk. Much of the success was due to the dogged perseverance of the British citizens who risked life and limb to cross the channel from England to France as rescuers of their protectors. Over those days, nearly 900 small ships, mostly private vessels, traversed the seas to ferry soldiers to larger ships that could not reach the beaches. Additionally, these same boats were repeatedly loaded with survivors and taken all the way back to English soil and safety. Of the many volunteer ships that crossed the channel, 243 were sunk by enemy fire – yet the others kept coming until the work was done.

The injured loading onto a transport

This is not a movie like the old WWII films of my younger days. There isn’t a lot of character development or interest in side stories. But it is a very powerful tale from the view of participants in the events. Some are tragic, others heroic, and the final scene with the British fighter pilot is perhaps the most touching of the whole experience. The more I ponder the time I spent in the theater, the more I appreciate what was shared.

It is interesting that Nolan would take such a chance with the presentation of this story. Most directors would rely on the charisma of the actors (Kenneth Branagh and other recognizable actors have very understated roles) and side stories to guarantee the attention of viewers but he has gone a different route. Letting events piece together the story from the choppy time-lines and spotty dialogue invites the use of the mind and emotions to confirm the power of the story. I wouldn’t want every film to go like this, but I think “Dunkirk” is a fine place to practice this little bit of magic.

A small word of caution. Some reviewers have indicated there were a couple of times when particularly offensive foul language was spoken, but I seem to have missed that – of course, my ears aren’t what they used to be – so beware. I’m looking forward to taking my wife to see this and hope she enjoys it as much as I did. What a powerful story of faith and heroism by ordinary people.
My favorite kind to know.

1 comment:

Christine Andersen said...

Thanks for your insightful review. We hope to see it soon.