Arts Review, Uncategorized

Dunkirk, A Film Review by Marc Glassman

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Dunkirk
Christopher Nolan, director, writer and co-producer
Starring: Fionn Whitehead (Tommy), Harry Styles (Alex), Aneurin Barnard (Gibson), Tom Hardy (Farrier), Jack Lowden (Collins), Mark Rylance (Mr. Dawson), Cillian Murphy (Shivering Soldier), Tom Glynn-Carney (Peter), Barry Keoghan (George), Kenneth Branagh (Commander Bolton)

“No purely military study of the major aspects of the war could do justice to the skill and the heroism of the evacuation from Dunkirk. Suffice it to say only that, when it began, members of the British imperial general staff doubted that 25% of the B.E.F. [British Expeditionary Forces] could be saved. When it was completed, some 330,000 French and British troops, together with some Belgian and Dutch forces who refused to surrender, had reached haven in England…One of the most motley fleets of history—ships, transports, merchantmen, fishing boats, pleasure craft—took men off from the very few ports left, from the open beaches themselves, for German air attacks had virtually destroyed most port facilities.
The royal air force, including planes from the metropolitan force in England, met and asserted at least temporary air superiority over the tremendous German air forces.”—George Fielding Eliot, Britannica Book of the Year, 1941

The evacuation of over 300,000 British and Allied Forces in the spring of 1940 was the first successful military operation performed against the on-rushing Nazi blitzkrieg, which swept across Europe from the fall of 1939 to the winter of 1941. That’s why it was receiving heartfelt kudos in a Britannica book just a year after it happened. Although a retreat is always a defeat, the courage and audacity of the British people in taking small ships across the Channel to rescue such an enormous number of armed personnel must be considered to be one of the most awe-inspiring events of all time.

The fact that Christopher Nolan has created a major motion picture about Dunkirk is less surprising than is the realization that no one has attempted to make one before. His Dunkirk is not only a riveting epic, it is also reminiscent of such ‘60s classics as The Longest Day, The Guns of Navarone and The Great Escape in its emphasis on a rotating series of individual set pieces and eschewing of gruesome violence. Where Dunkirk is different from those films is in its sparse use of dialogue and lack of show-stopping heroics to make its points. Instead, we watch the British fight uphill battles to succeed in their nearly impossible task.

Nolan has structured the film around a line in Winston Churchill’s famous speech about Dunkirk: “You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.” Dunkirk consists of three stories, one on sea, one on air and one on land (at least some of the time). The stories are edited in a non-linear fashion so we can participate in each almost simultaneously.

In one story, three privates—your basic soldiers—attempt to get on boats to escape an increasingly scary looking beach, which is being strafed by Nazi planes. These three blokes get on big ships, which get torpedoed and bombed—but they keep on escaping, until one of Mr. Churchill’s small boats brings them to Britain. In the air, two heroic R.A.F. pilots fight impossible odds to bring down German fighter jets; their tales come the closest to being the same as ones that could have been part of a ‘60s war film. In the sea, the brilliant Mark Rylance brings his spare, pure artistry to the role of a decent man who will risk everything—including his one remaining son–for his country including traveling across the Channel in a small boat to save British soldiers.

Dunkirk is old-fashioned entertainment, made with verve and style. It will be the hit of the summer, in my humble estimation.

Click here for more film reviews from Marc Glassman.

Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

Tune in to hear Marc Glassman’s Art Reviews
Friday’s at 9:07am on Classical Mornings with Mike and Jean.

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