Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan is a war movie both great and frustrating. Aesthetically, it is interesting in how it borrows the subjective viewpoints of anonymous people sucked into warfare to the umpteenth. It is reminiscent, for me, of a famous literary battle scene during the Napoleonic wars in La Chartreuse de Parme by Stendhal; a single man's gaze reveals just how confusing and inintelligible war is. In this sense, Nolan eschews the 20/20 hindsight viewpoint at all cost, making you feel on the contrary that time is unravelling now and all objects, events and men have yet to be fully comprehended - or even named. The war has not happened. It is happening and you don't know where it is headed. It could be the viewpoint of a baby eager to understand a brand new world...
Dunkirk is both visceral and abstract. Sweeping wide angles look almost like Turner paintings without any serene yellow in them, just beiges, grays and consistently drab, muted tints, except for fires. Frontiers between sky, land and water are nearly blurred. You are contemplating a continuum of Angst. People are barely speaking but you can feel their hearts throbbing because yours is, probably.
Nolan insists on how a battle is in fact a confusing, fragmentary and absurd experience. You are invited to feel this in your guts. You see just a little more than a character to be able to anticipate impeding doom. The characters in the movie are both actors and themselves spectators of events they barely understand: a tide is every 3 hours, they think mistakenly, twice. The only thing they clearly understand is that they will die, unless they escape the trap of Dunkirk.
You can love the movie for its visceral and aesthetic aspects, but beware of important historical distortions which are unjustified except from the viewpoints of storytelling oversimplification and an easy, commercial glorification of England at the expense of the Allies' efforts, that of France in particular. I say "commercial" because there are subtler ways to make you feel that British culture is great than by just featuring a nearly caricatural tea-mug leitmotiv meant to strike a chord with English spectators in particular. Make no mistake, Nolan is thinking of them, a lot, when offering such soothing sensory cues in the era of catastrophic Brexit for so many British people. The lapidary dialogues by Nolan however are much better.
The controversial relationship with the French army is evoked from the get-go. It is a running theme in the movie. I say this because I've read assessments stating that issues with the French were occulted. No, Nolan does show that French soldiers were prevented from embarking on English boats, with the necessary amount of cinematic time to bring it home. The end scene also remembers the French - and announces the Americans. But this doesn't prevent Nolan's lens from being naively, narrowly and mollycoddlingly patriotic at other times.
The spectator is invited to ponder a lightly critical assessment of the Realpolitik of Churchill mitigated only by the fact - and Nolan shows this very well - that every soldier wanted to survive and so the story progresses as one of raw survival. The Tommies would let their own in the sea at night when a life boat was overflowing with soldiers. A Dragoon tells a Highlander, he can't join them. At nearly every moment, a primal choice has to be made between A and B, simple as that. The survival story overtakes the war mad logic and purifies it in a way. Only British marine officers, it is suggested, are coolly capable of self-sacrifice - an elitist viewpoint, it seems. Simple foot soldiers on the other hand are wily tricksters - except when you go back up the hierarchy, with Churchill presented as officially recommending not leaving one Frenchman behind, while privately advising to focus on English troops. So, in the end, you could say, it's the "middle class" which is glorified implicitly by the story line. All the while, not enough emphasis is put on how critical the French defense was to the historical evacuation.
The French had understood and accepted their role as the last line of defense on land of the evacuation of the English army. Even German generals were stunned by the capacity of the French to fight back, they wrote, at 1 against 20 sometimes. To give an idea of scale, there were 30 000 Frenchmen and about 3500-6000 British men actively engaged against 160 000 Germans. A short documentary video at the end of the post shows the French and German viewpoints to counterbalance the movie's sorely truncated view of history.
In this reconstruction or rather recreation at once meditative and pseudo-historical of the battle of Dunkirk, one wished it could have attained truly epic proportions if it had lasted two more hours than the 1 hour and 47 mn allotted for its public release. This would have allowed for more historical complexity to feature. It has that kind of breath in it, yet also proceeds by minimalist, economical touches which prepare you for a more abtract, condensed version of the sequence of war known as Operation Dynamo. Apparently, only extras were hired and no multiplying software used. At times, you do feel the gap. At times, it is too economical and minimalist and the illusion can break. The goal was officially to rescue 400 000 allied soldiers stranded on the forlorn-looking, vast and immensely flat beaches of the North of France making each and every man sitting ducks for the Nazi air force. Those British, Belgian and French men were encircled on land by 800 000 Nazi Germans.
The Churchill government in May 1940 hoped to bring back to England whoever could be saved from the allied army stranded in Dunkirk, with at stake the absolutely crucial necessity to continue the war against Nazi Germany and sustain the Battle of Britain. Churchill thought that 40 000 men could realistically be expected to return to the shores of England. It ended up being more than 300 000 men including some 120 000 Frenchmen, thanks also to the requisition of civilian boats which came to be known as the "little ships" called the "little vessels" in the movie.
This is one of the aspects of the movie in which Nolan takes dubious liberty with historical truth. He shows or only focuses on the (519) English boats. There were, mind you, also (300) French boats. There were 29 Dutch boats. There is no attempt to show one conversation, exchange or sense of solidarity between the French and English "little ships". A Dutchman and his boat is shown once, but in a very indirect way. If you just watched this movie and adhered to its views, you might think that only the English took care of, again, the British army (the Highlanders corps is identified) - not the Allied army - while the French fishermen and sea captains had gone fishing and French soldiers were mainly there as an embarrassing reminder of tough, politically cynical English war choices.
This is another means of glorifying a national, insular history of Great-Britain in the times of Brexit. Please go watch it as an artistic statement, a cinematographic achievement, biased with sentimentality and ideology, not as a clear reflection of the complexities of war and the battle of Dunkirk in particular. The "spirit of Dunkirk" has thrived as a nationalist notion. But be very much aware that the spirit of Dunkirk was made possible by combined allied forces and the French army heroically coming to the rescue of a desperate evacuation plan, which succeeded beyond expectations, and on which the future of all the Allies in WWII hinged.