A Brief Commentary by a History Nerd
I’m sure most readers of this site are well aware of this summer’s rare treat, an epic summer blockbuster done as a serious take on a historic event. I’ve been very excited to see this, and by and large it didn’t disappoint.
Last I knew it had 98% at Rotten Tomatoes and has drawn universally high praise. It is riveting, intense and exciting without being grossly graphic. It is well made by every traditional measure. But I do want to air a couple of personal beefs; one the movie is being praised for, the other, well, critics have no clue…
The first is just that the time structure is confusing. The movie is broken into land, sea and air components. The land component covers a week of time, the sea is a day and air is an hour. The stories are interwoven in such a way that they come together at the climax of the film. This means some cuts like soldiers boarding a rescue ship at night, cut to one of the “little ships” crossing the channel in broad daylight. I don’t mean to suggest this is impossible to grasp or any such, but it is an odd structure that requires some attention to follow.
My other complaint is bigger and may strike many as unusual. Christopher Nolan apparently dislikes CGI and went to extremes to do more traditional film effects. But this causes a couple problems with this subject that I think DO NOT serve the film well. A small issue will only be noticed by regular readers of this site (!). The film’s “Messerschmitts” are all the same Spanish Ha1112s that have been film staples since “The Battle of Britain” in 1969. This is a complaint only because with two actual Bf109E currently in flying condition it shouldn’t have been that hard to get digital models of the real thing. A similar complaint applies to some of the ships that are clearly post war, or at least heavily modified in the post war period (too many antennas, too much enclosed superstructure, too modern armament). All of this could have been fixed with CGI.
But the even bigger problem is one of scale. Dunkirk, or Operation Dynamo, was a massive operation. There were nearly 400,000 men trapped in the perimeter and lines of men awaiting transport for days on end. There were over 800 ships (including 39 destroyers), about a third of which were sunk. And it was the RAF’s first large scale commitment to battle with 3500 sorties flown. Yet for most of the movie we only saw a few scattered groups of soldiers on the beach, a few ships (which ALL seemed to sink…), and never more than three Spitfires. This is a major failing of SCOPE! The movie often felt WAY too small. And this is exactly what CGI is good for. Let’s fill out those crowds, put some more ships in the water and put some whole squadrons of airplanes into the action. To be fair, the actual numbers were mentioned a few times. But SHOW US! That’s what movies are good for, it’s a visual medium.
I admit to nitpicking here. The movie is tense, exciting and may introduce many viewers to a critically important event they mostly know nothing about. Seriously, I’ve been amazed how many people said “what’s that about” when I mentioned my excitement for the movie.
Perhaps this nitpicking is why I prefer my history in books and reserve movies and television for fiction…