Dunkirk (2017)


This is what I felt like watching Dunkirk

As Matt Zoller Seitz observes, Dunkirk is not so much a war movie as it is a disaster movie disguised as a war movie. As an early member of Generation X — so early that I’m almost a Boomer — I’m old enough to remember the classic disaster films of the 1970s. All through Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed reimagining of the almost miraculous evacuation of the defeated British army from France in May of 1940, I kept thinking of movies like Airport, The Towering Inferno, Heatwave, Tidal Wave, and the film it most closely resembles, The Poseidon Adventure. Dunkirk says nothing about the Second World War, the Battle of France, the conflict between fascism and democracy, or the politics of France or the United Kingdom in 1940. Some malevolent force is attacking 300,000 British and French soldiers stranded on a beach less than 100 miles from the British Isles but it’s not the Germans, whom we never actually see. To paraphrase the Slovenian intellectual Slavoj Žižek, Dunkirk, like Jaws, is an expression of a sort of “free floating anxiety.” The Germans aren’t a rival nation. They aren’t fascists or Nazis. They could be just about anything the English speaking world currently dreads.

We have, Zizek argues, a laundry list of fears about corporations, immigrants, the environment and so on . “The function of the shark is to unite all these fears so that we can, in a way, trade all these fears for one fear alone.” He continues to note that fascism worked in precisely this way.

“You need to generate an ideological narrative which explains how things went wrong in a society, not as the result of the inherent tensions in the development of this society, but as the result of a foreign intruder…It’s the same operation as with the shark in Jaws.” This, for the Nazis, was the figure of the Jew.


Zoller Seitz’s review is intelligent and ambivalent. He quite rightly observes that Dunkirk is a combination of both the best and worst of Christopher Nolan. The problem is he never quite gets at just how bad this movie is. I’m not sure exactly why it’s received such universal acclaim. Maybe, as Zizek observed about Jaws, and as Rick Perlstein observed about 1970s disaster films in his great book The Invisible Bridge, it expresses some of the nihilistic despair of the age. But unlike Jaws or the Poseidon Adventure, Dunkirk is a nasty, elitist, and almost unwatchable piece of dreck with no sense of humor, no faith in the “common man,” and no desire even to entertain the poor innocent viewer who, like me, paid $12 dollars to have his head fucked with for two hours.

Dunkirk is not even a good piece of filmmaking in a purely technical sense. Christopher Nolan insists that we see Dunkirk in an IMAX theater, but why bother? The evacuation of the British Army from France in 1940 was a epic feat by a flotilla of small boats piloted by ordinary British civilians but Nolan captures little of its scale or its significance. All through the final third of the film, when the rescuers finally arrive, I kept thinking “where are all the boats?” Indeed, there only seemed to be about 20 of them, hardly enough to transport 300,000 men from almost certain death — or a POW camp in Germany — back to Merry Old England. By the end of this ludicrously overpraised movie, Nolan just seems to be phoning it in, not even bothering with a bit of CGI even to fake the sight of the over 700 ships that made the Channel crossing that May.

While it’s true that most soldiers are just ordinary men, and that it was the Soviets, not the British or the French who won the war against Hitler, Dunkirk is one of those rare films that made me want to see even some heroism on the part of the western allies. Alas, there is none. While it must be admitted that Nolan’s film does express some of what it must be like to be part of a defeated army that’s lost its discipline and moral, he’s no Tolstoy or Thucydides. It’s difficult to imagine that the army on Nolan’s beach ever had any discipline or moral. They seem sheep by their very nature, passive observers of their own imminent death running around like ants who have just escaped a broken ant hill. Nolan’s neoliberalism and right wing worldview is also on prominent display. Some soldiers do indeed get up off their asses and try to find a way to survive, but it’s always as selfish individuals, and almost always frustrated.

Dunkirk does have one man of heroic stature. Naturally, in a conservative movie, it’s a white, upper-class, middle-aged yacht owner, a soft-spoken man played by Mark Rylance who risks his life, and his son’s life, to rescue as many British soldiers as possible? How do they pay him back?  A troops of exhausted, terrified, and dirty soldiers muck up his boat with oil. A shell shocked infantryman played by the great Irish actor Cillian Murphy murders his young apprentice. For Nolan, it seems, the war against fascism was not about the British people pulling together to beat Hitler. It was about an innately decent bourgeoisie doing its duty to save the world from their own working class. I think we can all pretty safely assume that once the war is over, Rylance’s character will never voluntarily give any dirty, oiled covered proles a ride in his boat, ever again. In the end Dunkirk is just rich man’s paranoia about how the working-class will act when society breaks down.

My God I hated this movie.

2 thoughts on “Dunkirk (2017)”

  1. I watched the movie yesterday. I came out of the movie, like I do in many of today’s movies, asking myself: How can I improve this movie? As an aside, I used to see 150 movies per year; now I rarely look to see what is playing. That demonstrates the depths to which Hollywood has descended. Sorry, Marvel Comics and Disney-Pixar crap doesn’t do it for me. Indeed, Hollywood is laying waste to many actors’ careers.

    How can this movie be improved?

    1. Get rid of the sub-plot with the young boy, George, dying. This was a distraction that only served to make Mr. Dawson an unlikable character. With this sub-plot gone, there are thus many unrealistic and awkward scenes that can be eliminated. What kind of people nod affirmatively after their co-worker has died? And who is this boy, George, anyway?

    2. The movie needed a narrative overlay to fill in some gaps, to give historical perspective, to give more personal detail about people’s lives. I was a little confused about what they meant by Churchill getting his 30,000.

    3. Too many characters looked the same. And why did they all have black hair? I watch Question Time, the BBC, Sky News, and YouTube videos out of the UK; and I rarely see Brits with black hair; so where did all this black hair come from?

    4. The principal Brit soldiers were portrayed as a bit unsavory. The reason why people go to the movies is to escape the unsavory characters we face in this life. For two hours I want to be deluded that a better world exists.

    5. The subplot of the soldiers entering the beached vessel added nothing to the movie.

    6. The air battles did little for me. We’ve seen these in other movies ad infinitum. The one cool scene of the plane gliding into the beach was at the end of the movie. Unfortunately, the buildings in the background looked as if they have been built in the 1960s.

    7. Reduce the number of ships sinking. One good one is enough. We don’t need to see the same thing over and again. Having too many reduces the impact.

    8. My impression is that this movie was constructed as a simple evacuation movie which was then seen as inadequate; consequently, subplots – the air battles, George, the unsavory soldiers – were glommed on to give the story more beef. Of course, this never works. What was created was a Frankenstein of a movie, only more frightening.

    9. I agree that a more massive flotilla of rescuing ships would have added to the movie.

    10. They should take this movie back to the editing room. Less is more.

    1. 1. Get rid of the sub-plot with the young boy, George, dying.

      But that subplot is key to Nolan’s worldview. You see it in the Dark Knight films. The upper classes must manipulate the working classes for their own good. So Dawson’s son had the right idea keeping the shell shocked soldier imprisoned. But after he got out and killed the young boy, then Dawson lied to him about his “being alright.” Later, Dawson lies to the public and sends out a press release saying the boy was a hero, when in fact all he did was get his brains bashed in by a coward (something the public doesn’t have to know).

      2.) I was a little confused about what they meant by Churchill getting his 30,000.

      Churchill originally thought he’d only be able to evacuate 30,000 people. The “miracle of Dunkirk” was how the flotilla of small boats got 300,000 back to the UK.

      3.) And why did they all have black hair?

      Yes. But Dawson’s son and the gallant preppy were both very blond and preppy. Nolan managed to slip a little racism into his elitism. Cowardly working class black haired Anglo Saxons. Heroic blond preppy Anglo Saxons.

      4.) The principal Brit soldiers were portrayed as a bit unsavory.

      Essentially the film is an upper class paranoia tale about how the working class would react is society breaks down (global warming, for example). His conclusion is that they’d act like selfish, hysterical cowards.

      5.) The subplot of the soldiers entering the beached vessel added nothing to the movie.

      That’s actually the one thing I thought worked. The soldiers were fighting to stay on the sinking ship. And the xenophobia against the French (which apparently has some historical basis) was made explicit. When people panic they become paranoid xenophobes.

      6.) The air battles did little for me.

      Boring. Nolan thinks that if he bores us we’ll think it’s realistic. See The Blue Max for great air battles.

      7.) Reduce the number of ships sinking.

      Hell yeah. There were more ships sinking than there were ships coming to the rescue. The movie posed as being realistic. But this came off an unbelievable.

      8.) What was created was a Frankenstein of a movie, only more frightening.

      It’s upper class paranoia about how we the working class would act badly when society breaks down. Dawson graciously lets a coward and some greasy soldiers on his boat, for example. One soldier repays him by committing murder (or manslaughter out of sheer cowardly panic). Dawson is generous and noble. “We have a job to do.” The soldier is a selfish coward. “We have to go back to England.

      9.) I agree that a more massive flotilla of rescuing ships would have added to the movie.

      It was the movie’s biggest flaw and a sign the film itself was bad. There was no overall real narrative arc leading to the rescue or attempt to dramatize the great collective effort by the British people. So Nolan saw no reason to try to stage the rescue at all (when up until that point the movie wore its “realism” on its sleeve).

      10.) They should take this movie back to the editing room. Less is more.

      It was less than 2 hours, with the trailers. It felt much longer.

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