I took it into my head to see Dunkirk in a movie theater on the opening weekend. I don’t think I have done since the early nineties (when we returned from Spain, where movies showed at the base theater six months to a year after premiering.) The last time I saw a movie in an actual theater, instead of at home on DVD or on streaming video was – if memory serves – The Kings’ Speech, in 2010, or it may have been The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in 2013. We saw the latter in an Alamo Drafthouse cinema, notable for being set up in a civilized manner to serve tasty adult beverages before and during the showing, as well as equally tasty entrees. They also have a positively Soup-Naziesque attitude about talking, texting, ringing cellphones and children disturbing the movie experience – an attitude of which I regretfully approve. One toot on yer flute, or on your cellie, and you’re oot, as the saying about the woman in the Scottish cinema with a hearing horn used to go. Adding to the charm of the experience – you can book a ticket for a specific seat and showing through their website, and pay for it online in advance. Print out your ticket on your home printer, waltz into the theater at the appointed time – and yes, this is one thing I do like about the 21st century.
Back to the movie. The necessary trailers for upcoming releases reminded me powerfully about why I have not been to a movie theater for a movie since 2010 or 2013, especially a trailer for a superhero concoction called The Justice League. No, sorry; so much my not-cuppa-tea that I wouldn’t move two feet off a rock ledge to watch it, or anything else there was a trailer for. Fortunately, the pre-feature features were few and relatively brief.
Then to the main feature, which began very quietly, with a half-dozen British squaddies wandering down a narrow street on the outskirts of Dunkirk, under a fluttering of German propaganda leaflets … which set the situation as it exists, and supplies one of the young soldiers, appropriately named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), with a supply of toilet paper.
Tommy is a luckless lower-ranks Candide, foiled numerous times in his efforts to get away from Dunkirk, the first of three different yet congruent stories told by the director, Christopher Nolan. Some viewers may have difficulty in following them, as they weave and intersect with each other. I did not – although how daylight and tide conditions changed abruptly from shot to shot and episode to episode in the narrative may baffle some viewers. Tommy’s soggy epic journey (he damn near gets drowned three times by my account) alternates with two other narratives: an account of the civilian boat-owning volunteers – epitomized by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his younger son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s school chum, George (Barry Keoghan). The Admiralty, under emergency orders, has begun requisitioning civilian boats for service shifting English and French troops off the beaches held in a pocket between Dunkirk and Bray Dunes.
This is historically accurate – the main harbor of Dunkirk was composed of an inner and an outer harbor. The inner was essentially unusable through German bombing by the time of the evacuation. The outer – a long sheltering mole-and-walkway – was difficult to moor large sea-going ships against, and hideously vulnerable to German bombing and strafing attacks, both to the ships and the ranks of soldiers drawn up to board them. Mr. Dawson’s substantial motor-sail yacht is one of those requisitioned to serve – because of their relatively shallow-draft – in taking troops directly off the beach to the larger ships at anchor in deeper water. (This character and account is clearly based on the experience of Charles Lightoller.) Mr. Dawson doesn’t want to turn his yacht over to the Navy and he heads out of the English harbor, (after ditching all the civilian accoutrements and taking on a load of life-preservers) with a crew composed of a pair of teenaged schoolboys.
The third element, after land and sea, is in the air; a pair of RAF Spitfire pilots, Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farner (Tom Hardy). They start on their mission to provide air cover to the evacuation, lose their flight leader even before they even get mid-way – and thereafter Farner, with a busted fuel-gage on his fighter-plane (which was top of the line in 1940) is on a tense countdown. Make his goal, achieve his mission of providing air cover for the evacuation before he runs out of fuel…
The countdown is one of the elements which makes this movie consistently suspenseful: the countdown of Farner’s fuel tanks, the countdown of Tommy’s ability to hold his breath, the arrival of the ‘little ships’ in time to do any good, the ability of Mr. Dawson’s crew to haul drowning soldiers out of the water before the oil from a sinking ship cooks off. This is punched up in the soundtrack, which is not so much music but the effect of a clock ticking, occasionally broken by a terrifying silence which means that the German dive bombers are about to attack. The soundtrack is mostly sound design, with very little music as we usually hear it. The only conventional and hummable bits are a version of ‘Nimrod’ from Elgar’s Enigma Variations in about the last five minutes. The acting is likewise impeccable from the cast, especially Tom Hardy, who as Farner, had the challenge of spending most of the movie with his face covered by his oxygen mask and goggles.
Those are the laudable elements – now the severely critical comments based on the various books on Operation Dynamo. This is one of the historical events that I was obsessively interested in as a teenager. The movie vision of the smoke column on the horizon is lame. From all reports and photographic evidence – it was huge. Really huge – as could be seen from across the channel, covering a good quarter to half the horizon as one got closer to the French side. The crowds on the beaches were also much more substantial, if the historical record is any guide. The long tracking shot in Atonement gives, I think, something more of an idea of how chaotic, crowded, and desperate the situation in the Dunkirk-Bray Dunes pocket must have been. I was also thrown out of the story a couple of times by how many times the ‘stuck under a barrier and drowning’ trope was brought out and inflicted on key characters. Really, do this no more than once per character a movie. A lovely shot of all the ‘little boats’ coming to the rescue; they all looked so pristine. It was a fantastic touch to use some of the real surviving Dunkirk ‘little boats’, but only a few were shown, out of 250 or so known to have participated. As a matter of fact, many were towed across the Channel to the evacuation zone, most of them crewed by Naval reservists (as was shown in the initial scene with Mr. Dawson’s boat), and they bustled back and forth from the shallows, ferrying troops out to the deeper-draft ships standing off-shore, rather than make the cross-channel journey independently and loaded with troops. (The largest portion of troops rescued from Dunkirk were transported to safety on destroyers – not on the ‘little boats’.) The bit about the British Army engineers kluging up a pier by driving trucks into the sea at low-tide to create a makeshift pier to load from at high-tide – that did happen. I do wish that the incident of one particular ship-captain deliberately grounding his own ship to serve as a temporary pier and floating it off again at high-tide had been included – but that act of desperate improvisation was one of many.
On the whole, Dunkirk is well worth the time and cost to see in a theater, especially this summer. Regarding the previews of coming attractions, though, it looks like it will be another four or six years before I bother going to the theater to watch another one.