Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Christopher Nolan
Action/Drama/History, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Date: July 21, 2017
Greg, we just witnessed a brilliant cinematic depiction of war heroism at its finest.
Dunkirk is an amazing achievement for Christopher Nolan. Let’s recap.
We meet a young British soldier named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) who narrowly escapes with his life while being shot at by German soldiers on the streets of Dunkirk. Tommy flees to the beach where thousands of British and French soldiers are waiting to be evacuated. He meets another soldier named Gibson who apparently has buried a friend on the beach. The two men encounter a wounded man and carry him to an evacuation ship. Meanwhile back in Britain, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his sons Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and George (Barry Keoghan) take their private boat through the English channel to help with the evacuation.
We’re treated to four points of view (POV): young soldier Tommy trying to escape, Mr. Dawson coming to the rescue, flying ace Farrier (Tom Hardy) guarding the shore, and Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) supervising the evacuation. It’s a great structure that tells one of the lesser-known stories of WWII, at least for Americans.
You’re right, Greg. I was woefully ignorant of the story behind this heroic evacuation. Apparently Hitler made a huge mistake by not aggressively attacking the evacuees, and we can all be grateful for his blunder.
Dunkirk is an extremely well-crafted film. It skillfully weaves together three stories about different characters whose lives converge at the end. This is a war movie and so there is plenty of death, but director Christopher Nolan wisely chooses not to make gore the star of this film. The star is valor, and it is on full display from minute-one until the closing credits. Nolan also makes great use of the “less is more” principle in filmmaking. There are long and excruciatingly tense scenes with little or no dialogue. The fear is palpable. But so is the heroic drive in these characters to act in spite of the fear.
LIke many of our readers, I’ve seen a lot of war movies. But I’ve never watched a movie that made me feel the emotion of desperation that Dunkirk evokes. I never understood just how personal the war was. Britons of all ages felt that their way of life and their very lives were at stake.
There are different levels of heroism in this film. There’s the heroism of the young men just trying to survive long enough to get on a boat. Then there’s the heroism of the commander overseeing the evacuation, then volunteering to stay behind to oversee the evacuation of the French. And we see the heroism of civilians going to sea to rescue the soldiers. And finally, the heroism of a pilot who lets his tanks run dry protecting the men trying to get away. He martyrs himself in the service of others.
Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey is only on partial display here, but in no way does this limitation detract from this film’s excellence. Campbell discusses the low-point, the nadir of the hero’s journey, as the “belly of the whale” – the point in the journey when all appears to be lost for the hero and death seems imminent. Dunkirk is a film that shows in vivid detail what the belly of the whale is like for the hero, and it is hell indeed. This is the epicenter of the hero’s transformation – either the hero musters up the courage and grit to thwart death, or the hero succumbs.
Dunkirk shows us both these polar opposite outcomes. Young George is one of our heroes who dies in the process of saving British soldiers. In no way is he any less of a hero for dying; in fact, by making this ultimate sacrifice he solidifies his heroism to an extreme, thus illustrating that heroes need not complete the Campbellian journey to secure their status of hero. Tommy, our main hero, does survive the whale’s belly. Will he become as “shell-shocked” as the soldier that Mr. Dawson rescued at sea? We don’t know. But the post-heroic transformation toward PTSD is a tragic one that sadly afflicts millions of people.
One of the things that this movie (and another the comes to mind, Warhorse) exemplifies is that not every compelling story is a Hero’s Journey. Surely each of these POV characters is heroic. But the story structure doesn’t follow the classic rise and fall we’ve come to expect from our movies. There are elements of the Hero’s Journey (Tommy returning to the ordinary world of England, eg). But the transformation of the hero or those around him is not necessary for a compelling story. This is one of those rare occasions where the enormity of the event is enough to move the viewer into an emotional state that makes the event memorable.
Dunkirk is a superb film that brilliantly captures the agonizing unacceptability of war. Yet it does so in a tasteful and aesthetically dexterous way. Christopher Nolan deserves Oscar consideration for weaving together three disparate stories of stellar heroism. I daresay that Dunkirk is one of the best films of 2017, showcasing the best of human virtue and valor. I have been torn between awarding 4 versus 5 Reels, but after some consideration, I’m going with the full 5 Reels out of 5 here.
The heroism, as we’ve said, is unparalleled and hyper-inspirational. I was struck by the heroism of civilians who took action when it was not required of them as it was of the soldiers. Ordinary people like Mr. Dawson who step up to do the right thing are especially admirable and elevating. Most of the heroism on display here occurs during a tiny sliver of the hero’s journey, the belly of the whale, and this is indeed where the heroic rubber meets the road. Director Christopher Nolan deserves huge kudos for portraying the whale’s belly in riveting, exemplary fashion. The heroism here merits the full 5 Hero points out of 5.
Regarding transformation, we are witness to instantaneous transformations “in the moment” of severe crisis, as when heroes must respond immediately to U-boat bombs pummeling ships and bullets piercing a boat’s hull. These spontaneous transformative heroic acts are marvelous to behold. Much less marvelous is the post-heroic transformation toward PTSD that we witness from Mr. Dawson’s first evacuee. We can’t overlook the unsavory aftermath of an especially punishing hero’s journey. Overall, I award this film 4 transformative Deltas out of 5.
Few films have displayed heroism as well as Dunkirk. The story is told with amazing technical acuity. I didn’t know the story of Dunkirk before entering the theater, but it is forever etched in my mind. The very purpose of storytelling is to share our values and history with each other – to deliver the messages of our past to those of the future. Dunkirk does this with surprising power. I give it a full 5 out of 5 Reels.
Heroism comes in many forms. We’re witness to heroism in great sacrifice (as in the case of the Spitfire pilot) down to small acts of kindness (as when the young man lies to the shell-shocked soldier as to the death of young George.) I give 5 out of 5 Heroes to Dunkirk.
I don’t think this movie was about transformation as much as it was about sacrifice. We do see some transformations – but they are incidental to the story. Everyone in the movie was already giving all they had to give. I would say that they all had already undergone their transformations to get to the point of desperation they experienced on the shores of Dunkirk. While I award only 3 out of 5 Deltas, it in no way diminishes the power of Nolan’s work.