Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Its Critics

If you pay attention to movies, you know that Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which was released in the United States on Friday (and on July 13 in Britain), has been a tremendous hit with film critics, winning a fresh score of 92% at Rotten Tomatoes. Media outlets across the political spectrum appear to agree in conferring high honors on Dunkirk. For example, The Guardian acclaims it as “Nolan’s best film so far,” describes it as a “visceral piece of film-making,” and compares Nolan to Stanley Kubrick. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal, which usually doesn’t find itself on the same side of most issues as The Guardian, praises Nolan for having “created something new in the annals of war films—an intimate epic.”

The world, of course, would not be what it is if somebody wasn’t critical of Nolan’s choices. A handful of critics have complained that the film does not have much of an emotional core because there is little character development, and One Thing after Another can understand where they are coming from; Dunkirk is an inspired piece of filmmaking, but it is not perfect. One Thing after Another, however, is less forgiving of more political criticisms of the movie. In a mixed review that admires Dunkirk’s ability to immerse the audience in the experiences of the protagonists but criticizes the lack of character development, Jacques Mandelbaum in Le Monde (one of France’s pre-eminent newspapers) takes Nolan to task for turning his movie into “a purely English history.” “In this film, where are the 120,000 French soldiers also evacuated from Dunkirk?” Mandelbaum asks. “Where are the other 40,000 who sacrificed themselves to defend the city against an enemy superior in arms and in numbers?” Mandelbaum would like to rescue the story of Dunkirk from its status as an exclusively British epic; the narrative he desires to see is a Franco-British one. This narrative would stress the courageous efforts of French troops at Lille and Dunkirk who bought time for the men on the beach—both French and British—to be rescued in a joint Allied operation. It would also express the pathos of the relations between allies who were now fated to go their separate ways—the British saving themselves to fight another day and liberate the Continent, the French succumbing to defeat and the tender mercies of Petain and German occupation. This type of criticism of is intelligible. France has its own story to tell about a battle that took place on French soil and involved hundreds of thousands of French troops who generally acquitted themselves in a courageous fashion. One can understand how tiresome it must feel to have this tale usurped or appropriated by the British. Yet there is more than one way of looking at Dunkirk, and many of these ways do not involve surveying the battle in its totality. Nolan is clearly interested in using Dunkirk as the setting for a timeless survival story. In so doing, he recasts the traditional British memory of Dunkirk which stresses the virtues of pluckiness, improvisation, courage, and the stiff upper lip. Instead, Nolan’s Dunkirk is a grim, austere, and often terrifying story where men must face terrible choices as they run a gauntlet of nightmares. As The Guardian puts it, Dunkirk is not so much a war movie as a disaster film; the characters, often with limited means, try to evade or, at most, mitigate the great harm of war. Indeed, Dunkirk reminds One Thing after Another of Samuel Hynes’ The Soldiers’ Tale (1998) with its evocation of the soldier as helpless victim before the often indiscriminate and sweeping reach of modern war (see Slate‘s comments to this point). At the end of the film, one of the characters, now safely in Britain, gets hold of a newspaper, and in a sometimes faltering voice, reads aloud Winston Churchill’s famous June 4, 1940 oration in the House of Commons (commonly referred to as the “We Shall Fight Them on the Beaches” speech). How strange and incongruous these words sound in the mouth of an exhausted British soldier who has done everything he could to escape a French beach, surviving rifle fire, artillery bombardment, strafing, bombing, and the sinking of several vessels. This moment makes us aware of the degree to which Nolan seeks to overturn the story that has dominated British memories of the evacuation.

At bottom, Dorothy Rabinowitz’s opinion piece in the Wall Street Review (as opposed to the positive film review by Joe Morgenstern which is cited above) suffers from the same kind of problem as Mandelbaum’s criticism. Rabinowitz accuses Nolan of “dumbing down” the story of Dunkirk because he did not supply the full historical context for the evacuation. Churchill, she complains, never makes an appearance in the film and, as she points out, it’s almost impossible, unless one already knows the story of Dunkirk, to see that the British characters in the film are pitted against Nazi Germany. Rabinowitz attributes the worst motives to Nolan by dwelling on his desire to make a “universal” and “relevant” story that neither gets bogged down in “politics” nor seems “old-fashioned.” She concludes that these aims show how little Nolan thinks of his audience; he does not wish, she argues, to tax their intellect too much. Like Mandelbaum, she wants a more complete story, but her version would involve Churchill, the discussions of the British cabinet, the conferences of generals and admirals, a full accounting of what occurred on the beach, and so on. In graduate school, One Thing after Another learned that a book reviewer should generally criticize a work on the basis of its arguments, not for neglecting to cover the topic that the reviewer wished the author had tackled. That piece of advice seems particularly apposite in this case. Rabinowitz appears incensed that Nolan did not depict Dunkirk the way she would have done it. As we have already seen, Nolan’s goals are far different from hers. She is interested in presenting what amounts to a history lesson in semi-documentary form. He is more concerned with the experience of individuals who try, each in his own way, to deal with the disaster at Dunkirk. Again, there is more than one way to portray this story.

One Thing after Another will go further, though, and argue that in other cases, Rabinowitz’s preferred approach to telling a World War II story has already been tried and found wanting. From the early 1960s, starting with The Longest Day (1962), and continuing until A Bridge Too Far (1977), Hollywood was plagued by “blockbuster history” films about World War II (to use Stephen Ambrose’s phrase). These movies, which also included The Battle of the Bulge (1965), The Battle of Britain (1969), and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), were huge productions that involved enormous casts and long running times. They interlaced the big picture with the little one, attempting to integrate the stories of politicians and generals with common soldiers. They could be entertaining and compelling in spots, but they generally faltered under the weight of their own ambitions. Film critics do not consider them great films, and historians do not think of them as great history. This sub-genre, then, has already been done before and, by most accounts, has failed. Why would Nolan want to give Dunkirk the blockbuster history treatment which is what Rabinowtiz seems to demand of him? Perhaps this is what Nolan meant when he said he did not want to make an “old-fashioned” war film.

Mandelbaum and Rabinowitz ought to understand that one can see the story of Dunkirk from a variety of perspectives. In recognizing that fact, they should ask themselves, first, if Nolan has seized upon an interesting and worthwhile perspective and, second, if he has related his tale well. Most critics, it appears, have answered “yes” to both questions.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

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