“Fear itself” is pretty awful

T he non-battle of Dunkirk began with one of the great taunts in war history. After shoving allied forces over 300,000 strong flush against the northern French coast, effectively eliminating any land escape, the Nazis then printed up and rained pamphlets on their foes. The air-dropped flyers were little more than the equivalent of a mall map, showing “you are here,” but instead of being surrounded by Forever 21, Banana Republic, and Panda Express, the dark area closing in on the beach showed Forever Enslaved, Weimar Republic, and Der Wienerschnitzel.

Why? This seems like a something out of professional wrestling. Why do you suppose the Germans went to such trouble to intimidate their opponents? Did the Nazis simply want to cement their place as the biggest assholes in world history? Were they worried? At high command is Hermann Göring up there saying, ‘’Dudes, er, I mean Herrs, yes, we have invaded half of Europe without provocation. Yes, we are bombing London daily. Yes, we’ve stolen all the art in France. Yes, the Aryan rhetoric is outta control. And we’ve got the Jew extermination plans all set, sure. But I don’t think we’ve yet sold ‘evil.’ We need to start making some serious dick moves so people know we are the greatest douchebags of all time. Without the leaflets, we may as well just be sending ill-considered twitters cables at 5 a.m.”

The biggest coup in Dunkirk is Germans don’t even appear in the film. They’re like the shark in Jaws, for the most part lingering behind the scenes. Their malice is certainly in place, from soldiers shot on the retreat to gift-wrapped presents from U-boats and the Luftwaffe felling anything that floats. Yet, not a German face appears in the film. While Dunkirk is brilliant for a number of reasons, this is my favorite among them. This is the epitome of FDR’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In May of 1940, the Germans had bottled up a huge number of allied troops in the small French beach town of Dunkirk, just miles from the Belgian border (which the Germans also occupied). Considering the allies doomed on the beach, the Germans waited, biding their time, choosing intimidation to invasion, using a skeletal attack to sink the few ships in the Channel just 40 miles from England itself.

For a war film, the action of Dunkirk (as portrayed here) is less battle than a panicked retreat. The camera finds British and French soldiers queued up on the beaches and jetties nervously waiting for help. Desperation comes in three kinds here: land, sea, and air. On the land, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) take an almost comical ship-hopping route – imagine one of those Sunday Family Circus cartoons where Billy does fuck-all over half the town before deciding he’s not wearing underwear or whatever dumbass punchline Bil Keane has imagined, except instead of Billy, it’s two soldiers who change direction every time a bomb destroys their next possible way home (which is often). On the sea, civilian Mark Rylance has answered the national S.O.S.  He packs up his fishing boat and brings along two teens (Skipper and Gilligan, IIRC) out to sea with him on a three hour tour of World War. He probably regrets all of it when the boat saves shell-shocked surviving soldier Cillian Murphy. In the air, Tom Hardy has the task of taking out all the German bombers by himself while not running out of fuel. You get the idea that so long as German bombers remained, in lieu of a working aircraft, he’d punch out the cockpit shield and flap his arms to keep the vehicle aloft.

While there’s very little actual combat in Dunkirk, there is no shortage of tension. If thousands upon thousands of soldiers can’t get back to England, the English army is done before it really gets going. It seems obvious to me that Christopher Nolan studied the first half hour of Saving Private Ryan and said, “I bet I could make a whole movie like that!” Dunkirk is constantly tense; the shark is always present (in land, sea and air. Land shark!), but rarely shows itself. The Germans really enjoy a good mind-fuck, huh? (See paragraph #1) If there’s any great flaw in Dunkirk (to my mind, at least), it’s that I couldn’t understand half the dialogue. That fact didn’t matter a great deal to me; still, my next viewing of this film will come with subtitles. From a historical perspective, I’ve found Dunkirk one of those terribly anti-climactic moments – a turning point in a great war settled mostly without combat. Nolan’s work here has put this viewpoint to shame.

♪On the beach you’ll find them there
Lined up with some great despair
The grunts on the beach
Are screwed, all and each
And haven’t got much fight

How they loathe to stand around
Fully exposed on hostile ground
The grunts on the beach
Are screwed, all and each
If boats don’t come tonight♫

Rated PG-13, 106 Minutes
D: Christopher Nolan
W: Christopher Nolan
Genre: “Bad jam, this”
Type of person most likely to enjoy this film: Queen Elizabeth
Type of person least likely to enjoy this film: Nazis

♪ Parody inspired by “Girls on the Beach”

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