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Movie Review: Dunkirk

The World War II movie Dunkirk has gotten some great reviews and some mixed reviews, and been panned by the French for minimizing the heroic role of the French rear guard who held the Nazis at bay long enough for the British to evacuate the bulk of their Expeditionary Force from the European mainland, as the Nazi Blitzkrieg swept through Holland, Belgium and France.

To those reviewers who criticized the movie for its “lack of diversity” I’d say the movie is historically accurate, but why bother; there is no hope that any who criticize it on that basis will understand anything that is not Dunkirk moviepresented through the post-modern lens of political correctness.

To those who panned it for minimizing the role of the French I say you missed the point of the movie.

Dunkirk is not so much a war movie, as say The Longest Day, Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan is a war movie; it is a character study of the British people at a pivotal moment in world history and how British values and character overcame the Nazi juggernaut to help save the world from the 1000 years of darkness that Hitler promised his Third Reich would impose upon the world.

So, much like in Cy Endfield’s Zulu, the British, in all of their now fading glory, are put under the microscope of Writer – Director Christopher Nolan, to become the story.

And Nolan shows us all of them: The stiff upper lip types, the absconders, the yobs, the patient queue standers and the laconic heroes are all there and had their parts to play at that pivotal moment in history.

Some have criticized the movie as a movie about cowards, but that is not true; it is a movie about men and their many reactions to the stress of being on what appeared to be the losing side in war.

Thus, the movie presents us with character studies large and small about the men who fought at Dunkirk, fought to escape Dunkirk and fought to save those trapped at Dunkirk.

And it also presents us with examples of war’s randomness, and how it may spare the unworthy and take the worthy in the same moment.

Tommy and Alex, two of the larger character studies, seem like cowards at some points in the script, but they are also moral men, and attempt to protect the life of Gibson, an absconding French solider, even as they struggle to preserve their own lives through less than worthy means.

The counterpoints to Tommy and Alex may be found in the character studies of Farrier and Collins, two Royal Airforce pilots who go up against long odds to try to keep the Luftwaffe off the rescue ships. In their sacrificial battle, they end-up joining the Dunkirk evacuees and suffering their fate, and their scorn for not doing more.

But the real heroes of the movie are the “little boats” and their crews who made the dangerous journey from England to Dunkirk to bring off the British Expeditionary Force stranded on the beach.

Without Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his boat “Moonstone” Dunkirk would be just another war movie, rather than the effective character study that it is.

Dawson represents (and Rylance effectively presents) the essential Anglo-Saxon virtues of persistence, love of country and humanity that were essential to keeping Britain fighting the Nazis, even as the fight seemed hopeless.

Soldier: Where are we going?

Mr. Dawson: Dunkirk

Soldier: I'm not going back!

Mr. Dawson: There's no hiding from this, son. We have a job to do.

Soldier: If we go there we'll die.

Maybe they will, but Dawson, with his decidedly unheroic countenance and demeanor, is the ultimate hero of the movie because he didn’t hide and he did his job.

Ask any of the few remaining World War II veterans whether they were warriors and heroes and more often than not you will get a similar answer: No. We had a job to do.

My one criticism of Dunkirk is that in some places where it could have used the names of the real participants, for example William George "Bill" Tennant, later Admiral Sir William George Tennant KCB CBE MVO DL, who oversaw the evacuation from the beach, it used fictitious names. This lack of historicity lessened the power of the movie ever so slightly when compared to other historical war films, such as The Longest Day.

But that’s a small criticism and I strongly recommend the movie. I saw it in IMAX and it is definitely worth a few extra dollars and a drive to find an IMAX theater to get the full giant screen experience.

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