I was going to call this Dunkirk Review Prologue, but I couldn’t resist. 🙂
Dunkirk is a “spoiled story.” By spoiled, I mean we already know the ending.
At Dunkirk, 400,000 soldiers were penned in at the beach in France, surrounded by the German army, which according to Wikipedia, numbered 800,000. They were, in a sense, literally trapped between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. The British desperately needed to evacuate the soldiers in order to preserve an army to try to fight off a German invasion. If they had failed, there would have been no British army. As Time Magazine pointed out, Britain would have been forced to surrender to the Germans or they would have been quickly invaded and overwhelmed. If that had happened, the US would not have entered the war and Europe as we know it would have taken a very different, darker, turn.
Even if we don’t know the details of Dunkirk, we know how World War II ended. World War II is essentially a substitute in the modern world for the Bible and Shakespeare, by which I mean it is a common text that everyone knows. That is partly why there are so many WWII movies and why Hitler is the go-to analogy. I can’t allude to Pontius Pilate or Polonius and be reasonably sure that the listener will recognize the name. But I can allude to Hitler and be assured that the listener will immediately understand the allusion.
So, there should be no talk about spoilers in Dunkirk or similar historical movies. The Allies won. And if that’s a spoiler to you, you should probably sue your high school alma mater for malfeasance.
But I do want to talk about spoilers in the context of Dunkirk. I am not talking about spoilers in the context of plot, but rather in a sense about the tone and film making style.
Before I saw Dunkirk, I went to see Chris Stuckmann’s review on Youtube. (Shout out to a fellow Clevelander!). Chris Stuckman mostly reviews blockbuster films, but he will occasionally stray into more independent films. He reviewed Diary of a Nymphomaniac by Lars Von Trier, which only played at the Cinemateque in Cleveland, and I almost never go there.
Chris Stuckmann’s review was much more laudatory of Dunkirk.
To him, the film was about the event of Dunkirk, and Nolan was striving for a sense of realism in his film. (Chris Stuckmann was right, I believe. Christopher Nolan said that he wanted the film to be “virtual reality without the headset.”) Yes, we don’t know if the characters have girlfriends, but to Chris Stuckmann this would have subtracted from the realism of the film.
From watching Chris Stuckmann’s review, I felt that Christopher Nolan was making a film more like United 93. I haven’t seen United 93, but from what I understand, the film is very much about the event. It does not explore the characters except in terms of their actions and decisions.
After watching Chris Stuckmann’s review, I knew not to expect a traditional war film, but a film about an event and not about characters. I knew that the film was about trying to immerse the viewers in a situation.
One of the things they mention in the Short Film showings at the Cleveland International Film Festival is that the films in the short film blocks should not be judged against each other (considering the variety of films shown in one block, that would be impossible.) Instead, each film should be judged on its merits. Put it another way, you are asked to judge how well the film succeeded in its intentions.
From Chris Stuckmann’s review, I knew what Christopher Nolan’s intentions for the film was, and I was prepared to judge the film on how well it succeeded in fulfilling its intentions.
More on that in my next post.