Jul 19, 2017

A romantic tribute to a heroic action in WWII.


Grade: A-

Director: Christopher Nolan (Memento)

Screenplay: Nolan

Cast: Fionn Whitehead (The Children Act), Kenneth Branagh (Much Ado About Nothing), Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies)

Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 1 hr 46 min

by John DeSando

“Wars are not won by evacuations.” Winston Churchill

By that reasoning, no epic film should be made of the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk beach in May 1940. But this is at least the second rendering, giving wunderkind writer/director Christopher Nolan a chance to create depth for the evacuation of 330,000 troops during a curious lull in the German advance.

Or perhaps the Germans thought a few of their Luftwaffe could just pick the troops off “like fish in a barrel,” thus having no need for Panzers or Nazi hordes. Well, they were wrong because about 800 private boats joined in the rescue, making the common man the hero in an otherwise soldier-dominated WWII. I would have liked to hear some of the German side (I can’t remember when “German” was even mentioned).

As we’ve learned from Nolan’s cinematic gymnastics, he can take time and switch it around as well as his virtuoso camera. He takes several points of view including three evacuating soldiers and the captain of a small vessel, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance). In the latter, Nolan is especially effective at revealing the characters of Dawson’s two sons and the rescued, shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) in the confines of the small boat.

Where Nolan does not impress is his choice to restrict context so that young persons may not even have an idea this is WWII unless they carefully read the opening titles. By minimizing the dramatic action, Nolan also creates an un-epic story by restricting the context. A more satisfactory drama would be a distributed exposition through dialogue with commanders and politicians as well as the grunts weighing in.

The romantic Spitfire dog fights with Tom Hardy playing Farrier, a skilled pilot, are just that—imaginative battle scenes that help give some epic moments. The sweep I would have liked came in Churchill’s response to the evacuation:

“We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at