Q: I recently saw “Dunkirk,” and I thought it was perhaps the worst movie I have ever seen in my life. It was so bad that I actually thought about asking for my money back. So I have to ask you: Don’t you agree? What was the point of this waste of two hours of my time?
N.C., of Belleville
A: Union Army Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman once famously said, “War is hell.”
Apparently, so is a film director’s struggle to please all war movie fans, if your withering critique is any indication.
I apologize if I’m wrong, but I’ll bet you were looking for a movie sweeping in scope that moved in a linear fashion from Point A to Point Z, much like, say, “Gettysburg” or “The Longest Day.” Lots of talk about what led up to the siege, plenty of time spent on the hundreds of thousands trapped on the beaches and a huge finale explaining the historical and political implications.
But while director Christopher Nolan sprinkled in some of those essentials to give perspective, you were sorely disappointed if that’s what you expected — and obviously you were. In countless interviews, Nolan, who has given us films that have left us talking from “Memento” to “Interstellar” to “The Dark Knight,” said flat out it wasn’t his aim to make another war epic. Instead, he focused on several key characters and kept cutting from one to another to try to make the audience feel both the terror of war and the heroism that can emerge on an individual level. And the way Nolan smartly shifted scenes, it showed how those lives were closely interconnected.
That’s why after the briefest of introductions (hope you knew your history), we were immediately thrown into the action as Tommy, the sole British survivor of a German ambush, is racing through the streets of Dunkirk looking for shelter. It’s why in a Hollywood world where “important” movies run three hours or more, “Dunkirk” clocks in at a slim 107 minutes and has just 76 pages of script.
“I wanted it to be as intense an experience as possible and therefore as lean and stripped down and short an experience as possible,” Nolan told WTTG-TV, Fox5 in Washington, D.C. “You can only sustain the degree of suspense and tension that we wanted from the film for so long before you exhaust the audience.
“I didn’t want to tell the story in words. I didn’t want the theatrics of people telling the audience why you should care about them. I wanted them to care about them just because of the physical situation they were in, and in that way build up a subjective experience of the events of Dunkirk that would ... pay off at the end of the film without ever being overly theatrical or sentimentalizing these real life events.”
Without a lot of time-consuming dialogue, he wanted you to feel for Tommy, the British private, and the rest of his comrades as they survived horror after horror — or not. He wanted you to feel for Farrier, the British Spitfire pilot, as he ignored his shattered fuel gauge to keep attacking those German fighters. And you’d have to have a hard heart not to feel for Mr. Dawson, who represented the hundreds of private small boat owners who braved death to rescue most of the 338,000 men stranded on that French beach in May 1940.
Perhaps you should have seen the movie at the St. Louis Science Center as I did, where the Omnimax screen surrounded you with the chaos of war and the din of explosions that I dare say may have rivaled that of real battle. I know I was almost looking for cover as the bullets pinged off planes and through ships’ hulls.
In short, I came away with an opinion poles apart from yours — and both the audience and critics seem to agree, giving it some of the highest marks I have seen for any movie. At Rotten Tomatoes, for example, the movie has a score of 93 out of 100 with 312 positive reviews and just 25 “splats,” including:
“Dunkirk shows a world full of terror but Nolan goes to great lengths to ensure his audience is never terrified,” wrote Jonathan Raban on thestranger.com. He must have been watching it on his home TV with the sound turned down.
Reviews collected by the Internet Movie Database were just as glowing — 51 positive, 0 mixed and 1 (from Slant) negative. And of the positive reviews, 23 gave it perfect 100s, including Time, Rolling Stone, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. And nearly 200,000 Average Joe Viewers have given it a combined score of 8.4 out of 10.
I’m not trying to belittle your opinion, because I, too, am occasionally befuddled by the praise heaped on some movies. Besides, different points of view help make the world interesting. However, I’d be interested in your opinion if you watched it again knowing now what Nolan had set out to do.
For what was a New York City cabbie arrested for the first time in 1899?
Answer to Sunday’s trivia: Need a look into your future? You might want to see a chirologist or a chiromancer. They’re simply fancy terms for a palm reader. They come from the Greek “kheir” and Latin “chiro,” both meaning “hand.”