In Defense of Dunkirk

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Movies, like anything, create polarization.

I have a half-dozen friends and family members who say they didn’t like the movie Dunkirk. They, and certain critics, all cite the same two reasons. Most of them felt the movie lacked emotion; the rest didn’t like the way Christopher Nolan played with time.

I loved the film, and want to counter their criticisms.

(If you haven’t seen it, don’t worry, I’m not going to be posting spoilers.)

I’ll tackle the timeline issue first.

If you’re not familiar, the movie is presented using three separate viewpoints, each representing a different facet of war: land, sea, and air. These are manifested at the beach by Dunkirk (land), a civilian-owned boat (sea), and three Spitfire pilots (air). Their respective stories intertwine throughout the movie, but all three are happening over different spans of time.

The movie begins on the beach, one week before rescue, on the boat one day before rescue, and in the planes one hour before rescue. These three stories—beach, boat, planes—all converge in the film’s final act, when you begin watching in “real time,” so to speak

This means you have to focus as you watch, because you are constantly bouncing around in time. While there are several moments this can be slightly discombobulating, it doesn’t take much to keep up. The problem is that today, people are used to being on their phones (or distracted in myriad other ways) when a movie is playing; there is an expectation you’ll be able to fart around on Facebook and not miss any plot points.

In Dunkirk, Nolan made a film that required active, not passive, viewing, and I appreciated the effort. It drew me in more deeply than something straightforward might have.

Moving on…

The majority of negative response I’ve heard regards emotion, specifically a lack of it. There are complaints aplenty that there was little to no character development, and therefore viewers had problems investing in the people they saw on the screen.

I found the technique of creating empty characters fascinating, and realistic. The motivating desires behind the characters are as threefold as the timelines. The soldiers want to survive. The civilians want to rescue. The pilots want to protect. I didn’t need backstories for these people; the event itself creates desperation. What force is more motivating than desperation?

I ask those who didn’t enjoy the lack of character development: what spoonful of sugar would have made the film go down easier? Maybe a cheesy scene where someone pulled out a picture of their newborn, saying, “I just have to get home to my daughter…”? Do you really need your heartstrings manipulated so ham-fistedly in order to have empathy for a person trapped in a horrific situation?

I’ve read a thousand stories of celebrity actors bogging down a movie by adding character “development.”

“I think my character should have a tic…” they state. Then they create a throwaway backstory; the character chews gum, or there’s a scene where a Beatles album arrives in the mail and excites him… Do we identify with that character more, now?

Oh… he likes The Beatles. I want him to survive!

Remember what made the original Halloween so scary? Mike Meyers was an empty vessel; he attacked without reason or remorse. Viewers were terrified, because they couldn’t get inside his head. Years later, everyone hated Rob Zombie’s remake. Suddenly Meyers had a huge backstory, and an idiotic obsession with masks. Everything that made the 1978 Halloween frightening became just another gore-porn movie.

Maybe the problem is in American audiences viewing British sensibilities; England invented both the stiff upper lip and Keep Calm and Carry On. Maybe American audiences need to see tears on the silver screen, so they know, “Ah, I’m supposed to be sad now.”

I don’t know, but I liked Dunkirk. It was sparse, yet impactful.

I hope Christopher Nolan continues making must-pay-attention films, and I hope he inspires other filmmakers to follow in his footsteps.

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