Two Sisters Review: Dunkirk (Part 1)

Two Sisters Review: Dunkirk (Part 1) August 8, 2017


Dunkirk beach public domain image

I know. It’s been a while. Okay, it’s been all summer. We missed Wonder-Woman because to be honest Little Sis is a bit more invested in guy superheroes, and we missed Spiderman Homecoming because to be honest I got home and realized I didn’t have a whole lot to say about it. So now, for something completely different… our thoughts on Dunkirk. Her first viewing, my second. She has never seen a Christopher Nolan movie before. All her thoughts are her own. We hope you enjoy.

[Update: Read Part 2 here.]

Me: Describe Dunkirk in one word.

Little Sis: Loud.

Me: Ha! Not a bad word. So what did you think of the score, because that’s kind of a polarizing thing, although I think a lot of people believe it worked very effectively.

LS: It was very effective. I was glad they didn’t overdo it. They tried to use a lot of sounds that were similar to… you know, planes and heartbeats even, I heard a little bit in there. They tried to make it very raw, which worked very well.

Me: Did you notice the ticking clock?

LS: Yeah, the ticking clock was a huge theme there, and I liked that.

Me: It’s also a big theme in Interstellar, which we haven’t seen yet, but I think you would really like a lot, and we should rent it some time. Yeah, that’s a favorite of Hans Zimmer’s. He really likes to evoke time, because time is a big deal in Christopher Nolan movies in general.

LS: Time or the lack of it.

Me: Or the lack of it, yeah. I thought it was interesting though that in the big moment when you see the little ships, and the cacophony and din melts away, and it’s just replaced by this beautiful orchestral swell… That’s actually not something that Zimmer wrote. It’s a piece of classical music from the 19th century. I believe it’s called “Nimrod…” It must be kind of iconic for the British somehow. But if you look it up, you’ll be like, “Omigosh! Dunkirk brought me here!”

That worked so well for me. I feel like it was similar to the Chariots of Fire soundtrack in some ways.

LS: Yeah, I’m afraid I wasn’t listening very closely to it, but I think I do know what you mean.

Me: One thing that people said is it was the perfect soundtrack for the movie, but it’s not the sort of soundtrack you would want to rush out and buy, because when it’s divorced from the visuals…

LS: It’s just music, it’s just sound.

Me: It’s just not as effective. Sound, yeah, like sound effects. It’s like sound design.

So one thing that is really sharply dividing people is the lack of characterization. And so I was interested in what you thought of the fact that we don’t really get to know any of the characters very deeply.

LS: Right, well since then I have thought that they could…without upsetting the theme of the movie, they could have done just a tiny bit of backstory. And I understand, if they had put a whole bunch of backstory, it would have totally changed the movie, and we’d all have been bored out of our skulls hearing about so-and-so’s girlfriend and so-and-so’s little daughter and so-and-so’s puppy… you know, that would have gotten a little dull. But I think maybe even if we just did it with one person… like just pick a random person and just have… even no dialogue, just a brief flashback or something and then he dies, I mean I don’t know. But just a little tiny bit could have worked, I think. But I think they did a very good job without any backstory as well.

Me: Who would you have liked to know a little bit more about?

LS: You know, the main guy we keep following around, who… it’s like we’re just watching him, we don’t know much about him…but I think just a little bit would connect us to his character even more.

Me: Yeah, I don’t think anyone says his name, but he’s called Tommy in the credits. I really liked the Scottish pilot.

LS: Yeah. [whispers] I thought he was Irish. He sounded kinda Irish.

Me: I thought he was Scottish.

LS: Well, that’s similar, so you know…

Me: I’d have to look it up, but… no, he’s like, “No, I’m going doon.” If you go back and listen to it again, I think it’s Scottish. I realize the accents can be hard to tell apart though, for someone who doesn’t obsess over accents like I do. But I just loved him, I thought he had a great look, a great accent, as we’ve mentioned. And he also, I think, got more screen-time than several of the other characters, because he got to be featured in both the air and the sea storylines.

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His name is Jack Lowden and he is Scottish. You’re welcome, ladies.

One thing I liked is that I think character was revealed in small choices, you know, small moments. So when Collins and Farrier are talking to each other in the air…

LS: Okay, I have to break it to you… I don’t know who anyone… I know who very few of the people’s names are, because I was hardly paying attention…

Me: Okay, the two pilots, the two pilots.

LS: Okay, pilots, right.

Me: When the two pilots are talking to each other in the air, it’s very minimalist, it’s very economical…

LS: Saving their breath, basically.

Me: Right, so it’s like, “Okay, let me know what my gauge is, because I can’t read it… okay, how many gallons… all right, understood. 50 gallons, understood,” and he’s making the note and he’s like, “All right, well keep letting me know… I’m fairly confident it’s just the gauge.” And they’re just very stiff-upper-lip, you know? And there’s no real sentimentality, like when they fly over and they realize that the leader is down and you see a Spitfire in the water. Like, “No, that’s the leader.” But there’s no time to be like, “Oh my gosh, he was such a great guy! [flashback to happy days with Fortis Leader].”

LS: Yeah, that’s not the backstory thing I would like at all. I would think that would be totally superfluous.

Me: So that, I think, beautifully captured the sort of stoic grace…

LS: Right. That’s a good phrase.

Me: … of the British soldier. Yeah, thank you! We did get some, I feel like, some emotional connection with the characters on the little ship.

LS: Right, we did, I felt that they sort of developed them just a little bit more.

Me: Mr. Doss Dawson and Peter and George. I was so sad when George died.

LS: I know! And it was kind of an accident… I mean, the shell-shocked pilot did start going and shoving people around, but he didn’t really… he was just kind of trying to get him out of the way, and he fell down some stairs and hit his head, and he’s gone! And one of the saddest lines is when they take some of the soldiers on board, and Peter’s like, “Hey, hey, be careful with him!” “He’s dead, mate.” “Well, be bloody careful with him!” It’s just so sad, that’s all he says! And it’s like, oooh!

Me: And there’s a pause when he’s just kind of processing it, and he’s like, “So be bloody careful.” And that’s just an amazing moment, and then of course later, when… well actually, it’s not a shell-shocked pilot, it’s a shell-shocked navy captain, because if you recall, we see that character in flashback on a boat. And he’s the one who’s calmly telling the guys, “Do you have life-jackets? Okay, well just float here, wait for your next ride, blah-blah-blah.” That’s the same guy we then later see all shell-shocked and shivering. But then, yeah, he’s been asking about George, because he feels bad, and the first time, Peter’s like, “No. No, he’s not okay.” And he almost says it to hurt him.

LS: Well, it’s understandable.

Me: It is understandable.

LS: Because he blames the guy, you know.

Me: But then the second time, he kind of takes pity on him.

LS: Which is really well done, I think.

Me: I think it’s beautifully done.

LS: And then Mr. Dawes Dawson looks over and just kind of nods at him, like “Well done. Nicely said.”

Me: And even though I’m kind of… I’m still ambivalent about that subplot as a whole, because it just feels a little bit contrived to me, that was a very moving moment. And one thing I like about it… because the exact question is, “Will he be okay?” And Peter simply says, “Yeah.” And technically, it’s a lie, because he knows exactly what the guy was asking, and in that sense, it’s not true. But, in a larger sense…

LS: Right.

Me: You know, in the grander scheme of things, will he be okay?

LS: He’s out of this mess now.

Me: Yeah. I think George is gonna be okay.

LS: Right. Awww, that’s really sweet!

Me: Yeah, there are resonances under that line that are just… And when he’s saying, “Oh, this is the only thing I’ve ever done, and I never did anything at school, and I was hoping that maybe my teachers would see it if I got in the local paper…”

LS: Oooooh!

Me: No, staaahp! What are you doing? The feels! Staaahp!

LS: Stop with the onions already!

Me: I know, enough with the onions already.

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“I’ll be useful, sir.” <—[bawling]
Now, my least favorite scene was the whole thing in the sinking ship where the Harry Styles character…

LS: Seems a little tiring. Starts ganging up on this one random guy, who’s just standing there…

Me: Because he suspects that he’s not English.

LS: He’s French, right?

Me: Right, he’s French. And that’s why he hasn’t talked at all. And so they resent him, because…

LS: Well, the others are actually acting more or less like normal human beings.

Me: Well no, a bunch of them are saying… they want him to go up on deck, and they’re all trying to force him to do this, except for the one character, Tommy, that we’ve been following around. But, the explanation is that he took a British uniform and used it to squirrel his way into British ships that wouldn’t normally have accepted French soldiers.

LS: Well, in a way, he was kind of an intruder, but who can blame the poor guy?

Me: And he’s already saved their lives. So I just thought that scene was contrived and ridiculous, and I also thought it was a little bit funny that they cast Harry Styles in such an unlikable role.

LS: Well, I think it slightly made sense, because they didn’t want this pop star to be, like, the shining hero of the film, because then it would be like that’s the only reason you cast him, to get people to sympathize with that particular character.

Me: He does have a slightly thuggish face, I must say.

LS: I wouldn’t call it thuggish so much as… sort of an unpleasant schoolboy look.

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I kind of want to punch that face. For real.

Me: Yeah, exactly, that’s a great way of putting it. So, I’m a little surprised that his management didn’t advise him against it, once they realized what kind of character he was actually gonna play.

Now you said something, you quoted the Lord of the Rings when we were discussing that scene and how the French guy is left behind and dies, but the Harry Styles character, who we really dislike, makes it all the way home, and he’s on that train at the very end getting handed a beer and bread and stuff. And I think the viewer has understandably mixed feelings about the fact that he’s been saved. But what was the quote by Gandalf that you thought of?

LS: That some people who die deserve to live… I don’t know if I’m doing this in the right order, but anyway, some people who die deserve to live, and some people who live deserve death. But that’s not up to you to decide. I’m paraphrasing here, I’m not sure of the exact quote.

Me: Right. “Many that live deserve to die, and some that die deserve to live,” or something like that. And of course, that’s the context where they’re talking about Gollum: Why didn’t Bilbo just kill Gollum, wouldn’t it have been better? And that quote, I think, could be the subtitle for this entire movie, because what Dunkirk really captures well… is the randomness of war.

LS: Right. Unexpectedness.

Me: Yeah, things just… dumb stuff happens, unexpected stuff happens, you don’t have time to think. There are many situations in this movie where nobody has time to be a hero, because everyone is just kind of clawing to survive. Like I was thinking, you know, you feel like you get this brief respite in the scene where everyone’s milling around eating bread and jam, and they’re even smiling…

LS: It’s like, they’re doing something calm, they’re eating bread and jam, so nice! Then all of a sudden, “Oh there’s a torpedo!”

Me: And they’re even smiling for all of five seconds. It’s like, “Oh, maybe … Can we finally just relax and just enjoy some bread and jam? Oh, whoops, nope, now we’re drowning. Again.” And there were women on that ship, women passing out blankets and pouring tea. And you just catch a slight glimpse of the one kind of being thrust aside by the force of the water, and you never see them again, but you know that they must have died. But everyone’s just jam-packed together, and there’s no scene where it’s like, “Oh, I’ll save you!” and a person goes over and helps somebody else, because it’s just…

LS: There’s no time.

Me: It’s just not that kind of situation, which is kind of cold to think about. And sort of bleak, and depressing.

LS: But realistic.

Me: But very realistic, for sure.

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A bleak, depressing moment.

So yeah, I did feel like that scene kind of went on and on where they’re prodding and bullying the French soldier, and I couldn’t even quite understand what they were asking him to do.

LS: They were asking him to get off, because the weight of all the people was sinking the ship faster. So they were like “Someone needs to get off to lighten this,” and then one person says, “Well, it’s gonna take more than one person, but I still think you should go off.”

Me: Exactly, right, and “You’ll be volunteering next,” and all that stuff. And somebody made the point that it just really depicted British soldiers badly, and I think I saw her point. But at the same time, I think we do get plenty of examples of heroic British soldiers as well.

Oh, did you notice, one of the few light moments in the whole film, because we were talking about this sort of “every man for himself” feel that you get… When they’ve seen the medical evacuation ship sink, the one with the Red Cross on it at the beginning, it’s this harrowing scene where Kenneth Branagh is looking out and just sees it going down with all the wounded on it. And then he looks down, and he sees the main guy and the French guy and the Harry Styles guy all sort of clinging down there. And he thinks that they jumped off of the ship that just sank, and he’s like “Oh, come on, we’ll find you another ship.” And they all just sort of look at each other, and when he walks away, they dunk themselves to get the tops of their heads wet.

LS: Oh! So were they really just trying to hide, basically?

Me: Yeah, because the deal is, the reason… I mean part of the reason that they pick up that stretcher that the two of them do at the very beginning, and there’s this dramatic thing, you know, where they’re walking across the plank with him, is that they’re kind of hoping that they can sort of get themselves to the front of the line that way, because they’re carrying a wounded man.

LS: And then they can get on the ship, and they can get out.

Me: And they can get on the ship. But then the guy’s like, “No-no-no, back of the line, off you go.” And they’re like, “Oh darn, that didn’t work.” So that’s why they’re sort of hiding down there on the pier. So at least for the two of them, the tops of their heads aren’t even wet, because they haven’t even been in the water yet…

LS: And somehow it wasn’t noticed.

Me: So they figure, you know, people might kind of suspect us, “Your heads are dry, what’s going on here?” And so that’s why they dunk themselves.

LS: Yeah, I didn’t pick up on that.

Me: I didn’t pick up on it the first time either, but the second time, Dad was laughing, and then I realized, “Oh, that’s why they’re doing that!”… and so that’s just a realistic little detail that I like. Or also, the very, very opening shot with all the leaflets fluttering down, and the one, the main young guy just grabs a few of them and stuffs them into his pockets–for toilet paper, obviously, if you think about it.

LS: Oh yeah. I guess that’ll work. I didn’t realize it was for toilet paper.

Me: That was a very common thing. That happened a lot with leaflet drops.

LS: Right. There are so many of these, why let them go to waste? [laughing]

Me: Exactly, you know, it’s not like they would have toilet paper with them. They were in pretty Spartan conditions. And also, I really appreciated the sound design of the gunshots, because just from the first few popping noises in that opening shot, I was like, “Those are real guns.” That wasn’t a sound effect. It’s just like when you’re at the range.

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Fionn Whitehead, running away from real gunshots.

LS: It’s not really a bang, like you would expect to be. It’s more like a really, really loud pop.

Me: Right, and it’s weird, but you know it once you’ve heard it, you can’t forget what it’s like. So that’s just one example of the realism and the practical side that Nolan brings to his work.

I still don’t know how they actually destroyed those planes. I saw somewhere that they actually destroyed some German planes, but I’m like, “How did they do that?”

LS: It’s a carefully guarded secret, which they’re not going to tell anybody.

Me: …A stunt pilot parachuted out just in time, who knows? But, I loved the fact that they had real Spitfires, real Messerschmitts, and some of the real Little Ships.

LS: Right, which I’m surprised are still able to float after nearly 80 years. If they’ve been sitting in a museum all this time, I suppose they haven’t gotten a lot of wear and tear.

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Me: Well, probably at least some of them are family heirlooms, and they’ve just been passed down and lovingly cared for through the years. And so that was fantastic, although I felt like I should have seen a few more of them. I felt like maybe there should have been more…in the scene where he sees them all coming, there are maybe 50 boats in that shot. On the other hand, maybe that is accurate, because the rescue took place over almost a week, so it wasn’t like they all arrived all at once.

LS: Which would have been too crowded anyway. You know, hundreds and hundreds of boats, there’s not gonna be room for anyone to float, really.

Me: Yeah exactly… the beach was too clean also, I thought.

LS: It was pretty clean.

Me: It’s like, somebody described it as a bad bus stop. Everyone is standing in pretty much neatly ordered lines. There’s a lot of empty stretches of beach.

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Where is everybody? And why are we in perfectly straight lines?

LS: Yeah, and it’s kind of funny, if there are hundreds of thousands of soldiers, shouldn’t there be more of them on the beach?

Me: Right, exactly, and in that final, beautiful shot, where the main heroic pilot is gliding along and you get these bird’s-eye views, he’s [partly] gliding along totally empty beach.

LS: Maybe that’s supposed to be at the very end, when everyone’s already off or something.

Me: I don’t think so. It can’t be, because he’s out of fuel. He can’t be gliding for that long, you know? Oh, we should talk just a little bit about how awesome the dogfights were.

LS: They were pretty cool. Everything looked really authentic, because they were real planes. It just looked real.

Me: It really did. That was some of the best…

LS: All the shots shaking your seat, I could feel the vibration in the popcorn bucket, you know?

Me: Yeah… again, I liked the realism, because when a plane would go down, it wasn’t like a huge, dramatic explosion, pieces of wing flying everywhere, exploding fireball…

LS: It would dive neatly into the water.

Me: Right, you would see the tell-tale stream of smoke, and it would just steadily lose altitude and go down into the water, and that was it. And so that was very elaborately planned, so that they could make it as real as possible with IMAX cameras attached to a plane, which is… I mean, they had to be really careful to make sure that would actually work, that the plane wouldn’t crash with the cameras on it. So yeah… loved the realism of that scene.

I could have done with maybe a couple more light moments. I think the best line was the Navy guy and the Army guy are talking together, and the Navy guy says, “The next tide should be in 6 hours,” and the Army guy’s like “I thought the tides were every 3.” “Then it’s a good thing you’re Army and I’m Navy isn’t it?”

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Left: James D’Arcy; Right: Kenneth Branagh looking very regal in a hat.

LS: [laughing] Yeah.

Me: That was a beautiful little line, very well delivered by Branagh. So I missed that, I think I could count maybe two or three moments of levity in the whole thing.

LS: What’s the third one?

Me: Yeah, okay, maybe there weren’t even three. And I understand, it’s not a comedy, it’s kind of a war/suspense/horror film.

LS: Oh, speaking of horror, I liked how they didn’t… there wasn’t a whole lot of blood and gore.

Me: That was intentional, yeah.

LS: It wasn’t just like, “Oh, look at all the gruesome wounds we have here,” it was more… there was a lot of drowning. There was a lot of claustrophobia and stuff.

Me: Right. Don’t see this if you’re claustrophobic, for sure. Yeah, I appreciated that, but it definitely didn’t feel watered down [pun unintentional].

LS: Hehe, nope.

Me: I mean, you can still hear people screaming, you can see people drowning, and one of the scariest parts, I think, was at the very end when you see the oil catching on fire in the water. That’s terrifying.

LS: And the people all diving into the water, but they’re underneath the fire.

Me: They’re under fire!

LS: I guess you could swim this way [sideways] and get out from under, but it’s hard to do that.

Me: Like the one guy is trapped between fire and water.

LS: Oh, that was really intense!

Me: It’s absolutely terrifying.

LS: And some people try breaking up into the middle of the fire, which is probably a bad idea, but you know, you do what you have to do.

Me: That scene I feel like, again, is another demonstration of the randomness and the tragedy of war, because on the one hand everyone’s happy (at first) because the main pilot shot that German plane down. So it’s like, “Okay, yay that it can’t shoot at us any more,” but also, “Oh… my… God, the plane has exploded, and now the oil is on fire.” And so there were no doubt soldiers dying in the flames who wouldn’t have died if the pilot hadn’t shot the German plane down.

LS: Oh, right!

Me: So it’s all this tangled mess of war, that one thing happens which leads to another, which leads to another, and maybe this person wouldn’t have died, but maybe this other person would have died. And it’s all this series of tangled events.

End Part 1. Part 2 to be posted shortly.

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