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.