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Yes, You Should See the Movie About Dunkirk

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Dunkirk starts and finishes slowly. It begins with a British soldier evading enemy gunfire and running down a street that emerges on to the long beach of Dunkirk, France, where a combination British and Allied army of nearly 400,000 men is trapped in late May, 1940, the early days of World War II, attacked by the Luftwaffe and awaiting an assault by a massive German Army with their backs to the English Channel. The young soldier, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) winds up carrying a wounded mate to a hospital ship and then he and the other stretcher bearer are flung into the story of Dunkirk, one of the great rescues in military history.

The 400,000 men appear to be doomed, but the British Navy, the Royal Air Force and a remarkable ad hoc navy of over 400 bobbing ferries, tugboats and pleasure boats, captained by their civilian owners and their friends and children who would ordinarily be sailing them on some quiet vacation fishing trip save them in a remarkable effort, a miracle, really, and prevent the fall of Britain and all of Europe to the Nazis.

The Dunkirk story has been told in other movies, notably Mrs. Miniver, but in this new Dunkirk, a Warner Brothers movie that opened Friday, director Christopher Nolan has produced a sweeping and memorable film that makes you weep and cheer and wave the Union Jack (and the Stars and Stripes, too).

It is a movie with little plot and sparse dialogue. It is a film carefully put together like an erector set by director Nolan and loaded with dramatic close-ups. He has seven or eight little stories to tell – a small craft captain and his son, an RAF pilot, a suspected Spy, the two stretcher bearers, the British commander on the pier – and he welds them together, traveling back and forth between them, to create the larger story. He is masterful in the use of sound effects, with shots and bombs ringing out suddenly and half the time scaring the wits out of the audience.

He tells the Dunkirk rescue tale in very, very intimate details but, at the same time, offers fabulous action-filled scenes of the men waiting for the ships, other men burning up in the waters off France, others fearfully awaiting a bomb that never comes and still others fighting for their lives to escape sinking ships.

It is a small movie that is, at the same time, a very big one. The film is put together in little bits and pieces and there are no boisterous parades, political speeches or heroic charges up beaches by macho man John Wayne characters. It is the story of ordinary guys, most of them pretty young, caught up in one of the great dramas of World history, all terrified that they are not going to live.

It is a war-is-hell movie as are all war movies, but there is a lot of emotion packed into Dunkirk, especially with the small craft man and his son. Nolan gets incredible emotion out of Kenneth Branagh as the low-keyed Brit commander, who sticks with the evacuation right to the end, even helping the French on to the boats.

He spends an inordinate amount of time tracking the flight of an RAF pilot, who makes it clear to his men that after a certain amount of time they must go back to England and leave the men on the beaches because their planes will run out of fuel. He can’t go, though, and stays to fight the Luftwaffe, almost single handedly. The pilot, whose face you rarely see, is a lone wolf, or rather a lone eagle, and embodies the spirit of the Brits, and all the Allied troops.

This movie is not like all war movies at all. It is not an over-arching look at the war, or the battle, but an insider’s look, down to just a few square feet in which to live – or to die. Nolan has a deft personal touch and makes each small story come to life, and, with them, the big story.

Nolan gets moving performances from Whitehead as young soldier Tommy, Branagh as the Brit commander, Mark Rylance as the crusty everyman small craft captain, Tom Glynn-Carney as his son, and Tom Hardy as the courageous RAF pilot. They are aided by dozens of skilled actors in the ensemble cast.

There is one big, gaping problem with the otherwise fine World War II movie, though. Director Nolan never really tells you the full story. At the start of the film, he tells you that the war has begun, the army is trapped and a miracle is needed. That’s it. He does not go into any background of the battle or explain how Adolf Hitler could have killed or captured all 400,000 men, and won the war, but made an incredible error and did not attack the men on the beach. How did the allies wind up trapped on the beach in the first place?

Nolan is often too narrow minded in his mini-adventures and sometimes misses the bigger picture. There were far more than a handful of Luftwaffe bombers in the battle, nearly 400 small craft, not the few dozen on screen, and a full complement of RAF planes were in the air to save the men trapped below. There were plots and sub-plots, lots of heroes and several villains, but all of that is ignored.

At the end of Dunkirk there is a voiceover reading of Churchill’s famous post Dunkirk “we shall fight them” speech, but that should have been highlighted in a better way.

Regardless of these weaknesses, Dunkirk is a stunning, new and different kind of war movie, an intimate look at soldiers not only fighting and dying for their country, but men in arms against the awful Nazi regime. These guys had to be saved, and their fellow countrymen stepped in and did it, not with bravado, but each one with a nod of their head and a stiff upper lip.

Dunkirk is not just a memorable war film, but a story for the ages.