DUNKIRK: A REVIEW
August 1, 2017 | View PDF
"The trio of timelines can be jarring as you figure out how they all fit, and the fact that there are only a couple of women and no lead actors of color may rub some the wrong way."
USA Today Brian Truitt
Last night I had the pleasure of attending the opening night of the movie, Dunkirk. In all the years I have been writing for the Gazette, I believe this is my first review. Once this is complete many of you will probably say you know exactly why I don't write movie reviews but here goes anyway. Before I get started, and really hate to do this (no I don't), the quote above is from an idiot at USA today in his review of Dunkirk. Need I really say anything? Perhaps he doesn't realize that there have actually been some historical events where women and people of color really did not play a decisive, integral role in the outcome.
First of all, my overall impression was clearly positive. I do recommend if you are not familiar with Dunkirk, just do a little research beforehand to give you some background because you certainly will not find it in the movie. I have been waiting for this movie since I saw the movie trailer the first time about a year ago. I even rearranged my flying schedule so I could be home in time to see the first showing. When I talked to people about the movie they asked me why I was excited to see it and my answer was, "Germans, Brits, Messerschmitts, Spitfires and Stukas. 'Nuf said." That being said, the movie was excellent. Writer/Director Christopher Nolan did an outstanding job capturing those events in the summer of 1940. Anyone not familiar with the Dunkirk story, and those people are certainly out there, will walk away likely wanting to know more. Those of us who know of Dunkirk and WWII history, will also walk away wanting to have seen more but for different reasons. As with any historical movie, most people are not going to be totally satisfied and I am no exception. Although I did love the movie and will buy it on DVD, there were certain aspects that I did not like or felt were certainly lacking. Because of this, I will split this review into the "Good" and the "Bad." Understand that bad does not mean awful but simply in my little Jurassic brain, I felt the movie came up short. Also, I will try not to include any spoilers in this review. As a side note, I was very happy to see about 150-200 folks at the first showing Thursday night at 1845 at the New Vision on Chantilly.
1. The Sound – Let me borrow from modern vernacular – OMG!! Is there an academy award looming? You better believe it. I don't think I have ever heard a more dynamic and "in your face" sound track. Having fired many different types of weapons in my day to include the German MG-42 machine gun, there is a definite difference in the sound between German and British weapons. This movie captured this spectacularly. The sounds were loud and made you realize you did not want to be on the receiving end of any of it.
1a. The Stuka – By far, my biggest take away from the movie. The Stuka, (one of my 5 favorite airplanes of all time), short for "Sturzkampfflugzeug" was a German dive bomber that played an important role in the early days of WWII. It is likely the most recognized weapon of the German Blitzkrieg of 1939-1940. As a dive bomber, this airplane was highly effective and even average pilots had the ability to hit targets with pinpoint accuracy. Without enemy fighter opposition, the Stuka proved to be a highly effective, deadly machine. As an added element to the Stuka's repertoire, in field conversions, the Germans added sirens to the fixed undercarriage of the airplane. Run by tiny propellers, as the aircraft dove toward the enemy below, these sirens, known as the Trumpets of Jericho, emitted a terrifying scream. The faster and lower the plane came, the louder the siren. It was designed to scare the bejeezus out of men and animals below. There was one actual documented case during the German invasion of Russia a year later that one soldier became so terrified that his hair actually turned white from fear. I have watched hundreds of documentaries, shows and movies showing diving Stukas but let me tell you, this movie actually scared me. For the first time, I actually got the feeling of what it must have felt like to be on the ground and having one of these airplanes coming at you. Christopher Nolan, you are the man.
3. I like the three separate story lines. Just pay attention in the beginning and they do all come together in the end.
4. First and foremost, this movie is a rescue movie. That is what Dunkirk was. The movie does not let itself get bogged down into the Battle of France and why these men were there in the first place. This is also a bad thing that I will follow up with later.
5. Visually appealing. Yes being a pilot, I loved the aerial scenes. It is clear they had some very good technical advisors who knew a lot about flying Spitfires. The scenes of desperation on boats sinking was also excellent while at the same time horrifyingly sad. The foam on the beach, fear on men's faces, accurate uniforms and the youth of the men involved all give the movie instant "street creds."
1. The Air Battles. While visually appealing, the movie does not capture the sheer size of the air battle. While historians disagree on actual losses, the British losses range from 106-177 aircraft and the Germans lost between 135 and 240 aircraft. In the movie we see a total of 3 Spitfires, one Blenheim, about 6 Stukas, one Heinkel-111 and about four Messerschmitt Bf-109s. In the world of CG (computer graphics), this could have been bolstered to show the enormity of the air battle which essentially was the bulk of the Dunkirk fighting.
2. I won't go into more detail here but other aviation aspects were not what I would have expected (i.e. aggressive, gut wrenching dogfighting).
3. Overall Context. This probably my biggest complaint. The Dunkirk evacuation took place from 27 May though 4 June. A very hectic, deadly 9-day period. The movie leads us to believe that this operation takes place over only a 2-day period. Being a historian, I really did not like this at all. In the nine days, over 338,000 men escaped. At one point one of the characters mentions having 400,000 men on the beach. They maybe had a couple of thousand extras standing on the beach. I have been to airshows that have had 250,000 people and that is impressive. 400,000? That is a lot of people. Again, in the world of CG, have just a couple of shots of 400,000 soldiers on the beach. We have to see that. There really is little or no excuse not to. As the viewer, I need and want to see and feel the enormity of the operation. Lastly, some 860 boats took part of this action. Of these, some 240 were sunk. At the most, at any one time we might see 30, certainly not hundreds. The 1942 Mrs. Miniver with Greer Garson actually does a better job here. Again, scale, context, enormity all scream for CG. When Kenneth Branagh's character peers over the ocean and sees the tiny boats coming in, filling the screen with several hundred boats would have given us a better idea of what the British civilians did in order to get their men home. The feeling of dread the German spotter had looking out from his bunker at the incoming invasion ships in the movie "The Longest Day" instantly comes to mind. With a similar view, the tears in Branagh's eyes would have been surely warranted. In general, I walked away knowing that the battle was bigger than what was portrayed and likewise disappointed thinking that most people watching Dunkirk will never really understand how big this was in world history.
4. Biggest Pet Peeve. People who know me know I love WWII history and WWII movies; especially those based on historical situations. Take this for what it is worth. This is just T8er speaking. If you are going to have a historically based movie, please, at the end, and even the beginning for context if warranted, have something to give the movie true context and value to the audience. Teach me something. As an example, before the credits roll put on a screen something like:
"During the nine-day period from 27 May to 4 June, 338,226 men, including almost 140,000 French, Polish and Belgian soldiers were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk. At the height of the rescue on 31 May, over 68,000 men were rescued. In all, more than 860 boats took place in the evacuation, ensuring the British Army remained intact and would survive to fight another day. These men would go on to form the nucleus of the British Army that would go on to help defeat the Germans in North Africa, Italy and in Western Europe. Without this evacuation, British success may likely never have occurred"
Overall, I loved the movie. Many of my points are probably nit-picky. I do not think many people will walk out of Dunkirk being disappointed. Contrary to Brian Truitt's asinine comments in USA Today. Just be prepared when those Stukas come at you-- AWESOME!! So for my rating, I give this Dunkirk 3 ½ diving Stukas out of 5.