Sunday, July 30, 2017

Dunkirk Revisited

Further thoughts prompted by discussions I've been having about the movie.

Common themes between Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight and Dunkirk are becoming more apparent to me.  In my prior post I referred to The Dark Knight as the finest superhero movie ever made.  My reasons?

It's a serious film (while being entertaining at the same time), unlike most of the DC and Marvel comic book movies which are more about plotting to get characters A, B, and C to points D, E and F, and thus ready for the next sequel.

It contains a monumental, and very disturbing, performance by Heath Ledger as The Joker.  We'd become used to The Joker in the TV series (played by Caesar Romero), or by Jack Nicholson in the early Batman films as an evil, but mostly comic character, and certainly not very frightening. The Dark Knight strips away the comic element and we are left only with an evil core which Ledger inhabits unnervingly well, making it hard to watch at times.  This Joker would leave Romero and Nicholson in an alley with their throats slit.  Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lechter in The Silence of the Lambs look like the junior varsity in comparison.

Most importantly, it is the best movie about the War on Terror.  It asks us, when faced with evil that seeks to destroy our society and knows no boundaries to its behavior, how is a civilized society to respond, what are our options, and what are the costs of each course of action in human terms and for the future?  It does so not by preaching about a specific answer, or by setting up straw men.  It does so by making us unflinchingly confront those actions, the consequences, and the costs; both for society and individuals.  It leaves it to the viewer to render their judgment.

And what about Dunkirk?

WARNING: If you are still planning to see the film don't read further as it contains plot spoilers.

In a more subtle way, Dunkirk also explores themes related to sacrifice and the costs of decisions that must be made.  It arises in the relationship between the actions of the Spitfire pilot and Tommy, the soldier, raising questions about the duty to obey orders/rules and the consequences of both obedience and disobedience. 

Both characters disobey orders, and exchange physical locations in the course of the film. The pilot disobeys for noble reasons, ending up on the beach that Tommy has spent the movie ignobly trying to escape, and is captured by the Germans, thus sacrificing himself. Tommy ends up back in England, where the pilot started his day, where he begins to understand the significance of what he has endured and we see the possibility he might act differently the next time.

Kenneth Branagh’s expository role lays out the dilemma Churchill and the War Cabinet faced and why the rules were in place. They needed to rescue as many soldiers as possible from Dunkirk, but also to minimize the loss of ships, planes and pilots so desperately needed for the Battle of Britain, which is why so little of the RAF was committed to air cover over the beaches, and why the Spitfire pilot is ordered to return to Britain after a set amount of flying time.  The Spitfire pilot disobeys in order to destroy a German bomber and is lost, though his very actions while disobeying, allow for Tommy, who has disobeyed the entire movie in his desperation to escape the beach, to ultimately return to Britain and fight on.

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