I’m not ordinarily a movie critic (and it is sure to show here), but as a military writer I take a special interest in war films. First off it should be stated that capturing the epic scope of great military events and still make them interesting to the movie going or TV public is a daunting challenge. Band of Brothers pulled it off as a TV series and Saving Private Ryan was a terrific accomplishment for the big screen.
Attempting to portray the evacuation of the entire British army from the beach at Dunkirk France in May 1940 as a heroic accomplishment was a particularly difficult undertaking.
But with director Christopher Nolan turning the movie into sort of a cinematic tone poem was a brilliant concept that showed enormous potential. It failed quite badly, however, for technical reasons, mostly having to do with poor use or no use of special effects, except for the under water shots.
Nolan purposely employed sparse dialogue — and visual and sound techniques of a kind that would make it seem to the audience that it was inside the action. It was a unique and interesting concept. But as I said the movie was badly spoiled by the poor application of those basic kinds of special effects that have come to be so common and well carried off in today’s typical action movie.
For instance it was good that vintage British Spitfire fighter planes were used in aerial combat scenes, but then using trailing smoke of a type typically used by acrobatic flyers, in this case to indicate being fatally hit, was incredibly lame. Then, too, displaying aerial views of perfectly intact, modern, high-rise buildings along the Dunkirk beachfront was incredibly despoiling.
But most of all it was the way that the whole purpose of the miracle of Dunkirk was so poorly carried off. Dunkirk was all about the fact that thousands of small civilian boats, almost spontaneously, came to the rescue of hundreds of thousands of British and French troops driven onto the Dunkirk beach by the German blitzkrieg. Here, if nowhere else, was required special effects to drive home the enormity and grandeur of the affair.
Unfortunately a few dozen assorted civilian vessels — instead of making a virtual impression of the thousands of small vessels crewed by ordinary English citizens that had actually been involved in the mission — portray the key risqué sequence. Indeed, it was that technical flaw of smallness that so badly undercut the central point of the movie, being that the British military’s salvation was brought about by the heroic undertakings of thousands of civilians. In other words so much of the movie was right, but so much of it was pathetically wrong.