This movie is about Operation Dynamo which was the evacuation of Allied (before the USA were involved) troops from Dunkirk France after a horrific defeat. The movie focuses on the English evacuation where hundreds of their civilians sailed the less than 25 miles to the shore to get their men. They lost 68,000 men on that beach. Let that sink in… 68,000. This movie takes you to that beach and experience the desperation to get off the sea in front of you the enemy solidly at your back and you are getting mowed down from the air with no shelter to take from the enemy’s planes. This movie lets you know what that looks like.
That was the biggest strength of the movie was the visceral vision of wanting to survive and get off that damn beach. However as a story it failed miserably for me. You see I wanted to care more about the men to get a personal view of the event not just the feeling of it.
I’m drawn to characters in stories, even true tales. I want to know the people involved and relate to them. As a writer it’s the characters that come to me first then their situation. Here there were no characters only figures defined by their job. The spitfire pilots were there to protect the troops on the beach from air attacks. The troops on the beach just wanted to survive by getting off the damn beach. The admiral on the pier just coordinated the effort to get the men off the damn beach. The rescued guy just wanted anything but to go BACK to that damn beach. The civilian volunteer wanted to get to the beach and get as many men as he could off that beach. That’s it, that’s them.
Sometimes setting can be a character. Horror movies do this best think of the house in Amityville Horror it’s a character. Here it’s not. Here it’s the box in which the drama is played. There is no maliciousness in the beach. The elements gain no emotion. The faceless enemy is part of the setting with nothing but action no emoting. So in a way the setting is just like the characters one dimensional there to do its job of trapping the figures whose job it is to get out of the box it presents.
Yes it was sad to see the loss of life but they were no more that news on tv where I imagined they had lives but I didn’t know anything about them other than how they died… on the beach or trying to get off. I don’t why the civilian father knew so much about war planes, or sailing tactics when under attack, hell I didn’t even know his name. I don’t know why the spitfire pilot chose to stay and protect the men on the beach until he ran out of fuel. I don’t know why the Frenchman posed as an Englishman to try to evacuate with them. I don’t know any of the people or their personal stakes. They are just figures in the visceral diagrama set up before me. In the end I wanted to know some of them but then the movie ended and that chance was gone.
The visuals were from a cinematic standpoint lovely. The framing colors, textures, and views were well done. But you know you aren’t really in a movie when seeing for the first time you are thinking about the technicalities of how it is shot. The stunts and visuals of war were well executed and I wondered how much was actual set/staging and how much was CGI. But then again these aren’t thoughts you want to have during your first viewing.
For me this movie did what so many history teachers do to history make it about events and make people about actions they took in say a 48 hour span. History isn’t about a timeline of events it’s the story of people’s lives and how they lived, why they did things, how those memorable 48 hours changed their lives to do what the tag line claims – shape our world. Those 400,000 Englishmen each had a full story in their life if it ended on that beach or if it’s still going in a seat in a theater watching this movie. Its what was done by those that lived through it and lived after losing someone to it that shaped our world. I want to know their stories and from there I’ll not just see the event as this movie shows but I’ll feel it. Hopefully through knowing and seeing their stories I’ll gain a bit of understanding of why it shaped our world and how we don’t lose 68,000 more men to such a tragedy.
Sadly for me this movie didn’t live up to the promise. It’s interesting but it’s not what the men of Dunkirk deserved, they deserved more that being watched they deserved to be known by at least a characters representing them and their lives.