MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures
Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Fionn Whitehead.
Often after watching a moving film about history, I am inspired to go to the library or the Internet to learn more about the topic. This was certainly the case after viewing Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s new war film, because in spite of its scope and immersive storytelling, I was never quite sure what was going on.
Opening title cards set up the scenario. It’s early in WWII and 400,000 Allied soldiers from Great Britain, France and Belgium are losing the battle on the beach in Dunkirk, France. Germany litters the streets with flyers announcing their intention to come in for the kill. Defeat seems certain, but there are military units as well as civilians who unite to rescue the troops from annihilation. Writer-director Nolan tells the story from three points of view, cross-cutting in ways that compress and expand time.
The film begins with a young soldier roaming the streets and coming into a crossfire of bullets. He is united with British soldiers and becomes an Everyman who will encounter a series of disasters with those he accompanies in a journey of escape.
The second scenario (and the most emotionally rich of the three stories) involves a father (Mark Rylance) and his sons (Barry Keoghan and Tom Glynn-Carney) who choose to pilot his small boat to Dunkirk as part of a rescue armada. When they rescue a soldier at sea (Cillian Murphy), things become complicated and take a tragic turn.
The third story is an old-fashioned dogfight in the air, focusing primarily on the British pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) as he sets his sights on German planes.
It would be 18 months before America would enter the war. Casualties were high, but the rescue efforts succeeded expectations. The Dunkirk rescue mission (although in many ways a defeat) was used by Winston Churchill to rally Britain in a united front against Germany and in retrospect was a turning point in the war.
Dunkirk is inspiring and thrilling but also confusing and challenging. Most of the characters (including Kenneth Branagh’s stalwart Naval officer) are types rather than fleshed-out characters. Actors and covered in dirt and grime and are often lost in the shuffle of the wide screen. The sound design can be noisy and conversations between characters are hard to hear over the sounds of explosions and Hans Zimmer’s effective but bombastic score. (I went to see Dunkirk on an IMAX screen and complained to the theater manager that the sound was cranked up beyond the midrange speaker’s capacity to reproduce dialogue.) In spite of these quibbles, Dunkirk is a remarkable achievement and a film that I will want to see again. It is big screen epic filmmaking of the highest order, with something important to say about everyday heroism.
Christopher Nolan made a creative decision to film Dunkirk as a PG-13 film. Swearing is kept to a minimum and graphic violence is non-existent. Death is real, but sensational gore is avoided. This is a war film that you can watch as a family and talk about later. You may not all agree about exactly what was happening (or why One Direction’s Harry Styles is one of the soldiers) but you will still have much to remember and talk about. There’s a good message in this movie.
Five halos: A story of survival and sacrifice with countless scenes of selfless love in the midst of oppression.
Two pitchforks: For scenes of war violence and death; mild PG-13 swearing.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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