Main cast: Fionn Whitehead (Tommy), Aneurin Barnard (Gibson), Harry Styles (Alex), Mark Rylance (Dawson), Tom Glynn-Carney (Peter), Barry Keoghan (George), Cillian Murphy (Shellshocked Soldier), Tom Hardy (Farrier), Jack Lowden (Collins), James D’Arcy (Colonel Winnant), and Kenneth Branagh (Commander Bolton)
Director: Christopher Nolan
I really didn’t want to like Dunkirk, because these days, it is very easy to dislike Christopher Nolan. His last few minutes overdosed on pretentious M Night Shyamalan-like twists and turns, and his cabal of pseudo-intellectual hipster fans that would yell you down if you dare to say anything remotely negative about his works make it even easier to turn up my nose at him. Not to mention, all the eye-rolling stupid news about holding “secret auditions” to cast people in this movie. They all wear helmets or headgears, so most of the time we can’t see their facial expressions, and dialogues are few, so what’s so “secret” about the audition? What, does he want to check how these lads squeal when they get pegged in the arse by a baboon or something? I mean, yes, that old man-faced dweeb from One Direction is cast here, hey, but when one looks objectively at his role, anyone can step into that role, whether it’s Abu the Grocery Bag Boy or Taylor Swift’s 600th Ex-Boyfriend.
But, damn, I like it. This movie showcases what a bloody good director and writer Mr Nolan can be when he reins himself in and just serves a movie without trying too hard to be the second coming of Steven Spielberg. The star of the movie is not Harry Styles or any of the interchangeable good-looking lads in this movie, but the Dunkirk evacuation. If you remember your history, or have taken the trouble to check Wikipedia beforehand, you may recall that the Germans have the British and French soldiers hemmed in from all sides at Dunkirk, a port at the northern part of France, where you can almost see England but hey, certain death may be closer to where you are. A desperate evacuation protocol is launched to save the soldiers there – we focus on the Brits and pretty much exclude the French altogether here, naturally – and this movie focuses on a few desperate weeks of that time.
On one side, we have Tommy and Gibson who desperately try to find ways to jump the evacuation queue and get themselves onto a ship to England ASAP. They pick up Alex, another soldier, along the way. The sad thing here is that if they have stayed put, there is a good chance that they will be able to get home anyway, but that’s hindsight for you. Dawson and his son Peter answer the government’s call to civilian boats to set out and rescue the trapped soldiers, and Peter’s friend George tag along. They pick up a traumatized soldier from a wreckage in the sea, and set off to Dunkirk. And finally, Farrier and Collins are part of a three-plan team to try to keep the skies clear from German planes during the evacuation process.
One great thing about this movie is that it is beautifully free of wartime movie tropes. No fellow showing off pics of his sweetheart or kids only to eventually die, for example. In fact, there is no dwelling on the back stories of these people. They just set out to do their thing. And yet, their stories eventually do come out – not the whole picture, but enough to let me begin to see them as people rather than just characters in a story. There will be difficult and even hard choices to be made, senseless deaths, some noble sacrifice that does not get rewarded with a happy ending, and so forth, all presented without fanfare or melodrama and hence are more hard-hitting on the heart as a result. There are not many obvious heroes or villains here – many of them are just people wanting to survive, and if they do horrible things along the way, this is war and such things happen.
That’s the beauty of Dunkirk at the end of the day: it just tells a story without wanting to make grand patriotic messages or getting too obvious about its desperation to have an Oscar or two.
I have to deduct one oogie, though, because this movie has solid first third and late third acts, but its middle tends to drag. Too much focus is on Tommy, Gibson and Alex when I actually care about them the least. Hence, their shenanigans don’t grab me, and I wish the script has capitalized a bit more on the fact that Tommy is a disaster magnet: every ship he tries to get on sinks, at least until he finally finds one that picks him up just in time for the movie’s last act. It would have been a morbid kind of funny if someone points this out and tries to toss him overboard.
So, here we are. A part of me is determined to be very difficult and nitpicky where Dunkirk is concerned, but once the movie gets started, I find myself swept up by the beautiful cinematography and scenery, the emotions, and the senseless of the whole war. I give up. This is going to be one of the best movies of the year, so score one for Christopher Nolan. Asshole. But I’m glad he pulled it off, just as I am glad to have seen this movie.