Reviews for the Easily Distracted

Reviews For The Easily Distracted:

Title: Dunkirk

Describe This Movie In One Simpsons Quote:

James Earl Jones: And eventually they were rescued by, oh, let's say...Moe.

Brief Plot Synopsis: British forces find themselves caught between the Reich and a lifeguard place.

Rating Using Random Objects Relevant to the Film: Five "Who's the U-Boat commander?"s out of five.

Tagline: "When 400,000 men couldn't get home, home came for them."

Better Tagline: "Standing on the beach/ Staring at the sand."

Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: On May 20, 1940, German forces sweeping through France separated approximately 400,000 members of the British Expeditionary Force, the French First Army and the Belgian Army from the rest of the French armies, stranding them on the English Channel coast at Dunkirk. With no docking facilities, and few official vessels to effect an evacuation, the British government requisitioned some 700 private boats to cross the channel and pick up the troops.

"Critical" Analysis: Dunkirk opens with such little fanfare you can't help immediately tensing up, and that's exactly what director Christopher Nolan wants. This isn’t the first — or 500th — movie set in World War II, but it immediately vaults to the upper echelons of such films thanks both to Peak Nolan and to how it embodies the adage that says “war is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.” Except in the case of the soldiers stranded on the beach, that “boredom” is actually a tortured wait for a rescue that may never come.

This makes Dunkirk more of a “war movie” than most to which the term is applied. Yes, there are soldiers and Spitfires and impending Nazis, just like you'll find in more traditional efforts, but there are only a few actual skirmishes, and much more of a pervasive sense of dread, even if you already know the eventual outcome of the conflict (spoiler alert: Germany lost).

However, the lack of so-called action doesn’t lessen the tension at all. Dunkirk comes in at a taut 106 minutes, and there isn’t a wasted second. Nolan gives us uncomfortable close-ups of individual Brits and claustrophobic shots of hundreds of stranded soldiers crammed onto wharves, while Hans Zimmer’s score is mostly a symphonic countdown clock (Zimmer synthesized the sound of Nolan’s own pocket watch) ticking down the moments to see if the “Little Ships” will arrive in time.

What emotional jolts there are aren’t telegraphed.

tweet this
Nolan splits the story into three timelines, roughly analogous to the fighting on “land (well, beaches), air, and sea” invoked by Winston Churchill in his famous post-evacuation speech. The soldiers assembled and waiting on the “mole” (a breakwater used as a makeshift dock), including Tommy (Fyonn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard); the civilians crossing the channel to their rescue, represented by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan); and the few RAF pilots that could be spared to provide air support, including Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden). It's initially a bit confusing, but eventually comes together beautifully.

There’s also a vein of moral ambiguity running through Dunkirk that's mostly lacking in American war movies. Ostensible protagonists Tommy and Gibson just want to get on a boat, *any* boat, and aren’t above masquerading as medics to do so. Meanwhile, Dawson’s and Farrier’s noble actions are spurred by their sense of duty, yet both are rewarded in somewhat dubious fashion. What emotional jolts there are also aren’t telegraphed, built up to in a conventional sense or accompanied by obvious orchestral cues.

Nolan peppers the film with scenes that will stay with you, for different reasons. The stricken expression on Commander Bolton's (Kenneth Branagh) face as a ship goes down; Farrier's eyes as he makes a fateful decision (Hardy's face is half-concealed by his oxygen mask for 90 percent of the movie); the sound of a ship's hull popping as it sinks. Dunkirk is "only" rated PG-13 (Saving Private Ryan levels of gore are sacrificed in favor of suspense), but should come with a new content warning classification: "D" for drowning.

Dunkirk is a harrowing triumph, and is Christopher Nolan’s most impressive effort to date (no small statement). It's possible you've grown weary of World War II in the movies, but you should make an exception for this. And that Harry Styles kid isn't bad.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar