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'Dunkirk' is too good a movie to be truly great

A spoiler alert is necessary. It is, after all, what happens in the final scene of "Dunkirk," one of the most passionately awaited films of the summer. But then, it's also one of the landmark moments of modern history. In Winston Churchill's speech in Parliament on June 4, 1940, he called the Dunkirk Evacuation a "defeat" and, nevertheless, pledged in the future "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."

It is one of the greatest slices of oratory in the 20th century, right up there with Roosevelt's "we have nothing to fear but fear itself" and John Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for our country." In "Dunkirk's" finale it is read matter-of-factly from a newspaper account by the film's lead actor, Fionn Whitehead, a soldier survivor.

Imagine how "Dunkirk" could have ended: that same great historical moment performed with equal matter-of-factness by Harry Styles, the most popular heartthrob of the boy band One Direction. He's in the film, too and is, in fact, quite creditable as an actor. What a vulgar generational ploy that might have been--to have immortal words by Churchill recounted plainly by a pop idol at a moment of his greatest fame.

It seems to me what's wrong with Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk" is that even though it's a very good and recommendable film, it isn't the great one so many of us hoped for. It is too good to be a great film. And vulgarity is one of the things missing to make it so. Nolan seldom if ever accedes to the temptation to be tacky in the way a great filmmaker (Steven Spielberg and, yes, David Lean) might have.

When, for instance, we finally see the historical moment that made "Dunkirk" such an astonishing early moment in World War II, the movie eschews the popular mythology completely and stays as historically accurate as possible. When we first see the British private boats that come to help evacuate 338,226 trapped British soldiers off the beaches at Dunkirk, no effort was made to stun us with the massive size of the private flotilla of non-military craft or the amateurishness of them. They were, in fact, mostly Navy reservists doing the evacuating after being asked by the government, not ordinary citizens inflamed by patriotism to protect "our boys overseas."

Mark Rylance, one of the great British actors, personifies those British reservists. His heroism is self-evident but it is also underplayed. There is no vulgar attempt to underscore the obvious--that this enormously patriotic and humane man is doing everything an ordinary citizen can do to get his country's "boys" back home.

The film makes no secret of why. It's not the bosom of sentimental family most are going home to, it's redeployment for the sake of more effective war making. More and better war, in other words.

What happened at Dunkirk is that the Germans had trapped the British and French Armies on the beaches at Dunkirk, the French city across the channel from Britain's white cliffs. What Nolan has said is that "one of the most moving things about the Dunkirk story to me--in fact, definitely the single most moving thing when these guys were finally rescued, when they finally made their way home, the vast majority of them, thinking they were going to be a huge disappointment to the British people back home and then found that they were welcomed as heroes was to me one of the most extraordinary turnarounds, emotionally, in history and it was because they didn't know what was going on." (Churchill remember, told Parliament "wars are not won by evacuations.")

Neither, to that emotional or dramatic degree, does the movie. But it's hugely suspenseful, exciting--thrilling at times. And harrowing. The death scream of dive bombers racing toward 400,000 men trapped on a beach is a sound of primal terror you will long remember from this movie.

Except for Rylance, all the biggest names in the film are almost incidental to the largely unknown young cast. I didn't even know Tom Hardy was in it until he climbed out of his spitfire cockpit and took his oxygen mask off. Kenneth Branagh's part could almost have been phoned in. Fionn Whitehead, as the accidental hero, leads the cast.

So many of us wanted "Dunkirk" to be truly great. It's too virtuous and not vulgar enough to be great. It's a brilliant film that embraces grandeur but has a tasteful horror of rhetoric. Winston Churchill knew better.

"Dunkirk"

Three and a half out of four stars

Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy and Harry Styles infilm of the wartime British evacuation in 1940. 106 minutes. Rated PG-13 for wartime violence and language.

 

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